What Happens to Your Body During a Migraine?

For those who have never experienced throbbing pain, nausea and weakness. It is almost impossible to understand the “sufferers“.  According to the Migraine Research Foundation, USA, the disease belongs to neurological disorders and ranks 6th among the most severe diseases in the world.

Migraines manifest in hundreds of ways, and people experience various combinations of symptoms and post-effects. At the moment in the development of medicine, it is difficult for doctors to determine what causes migraines. So, it is also difficult to find a way to prevent them and create a cure for the disease. It is not known for certain what exactly causes migraines. But you yourself can try to determine the prerequisites and early manifestations of the disease. Thus, taking a step towards pain relief.

Prodromal stage

Technically, migraines start long before you start to feel pain. It is very difficult to identify any regularity of the preceding signs: for some it is frequent yawning, for others,  tension in the muscles of the neck, and for others,  craving for certain types of food. These strange signs can appear at any time: from a few hours before the onset of a migraine to a few days. They are so unpredictable, scientists cannot tell exactly what happens in the body during a migraine. According to the most common version (but not proven), there is a slowdown in digestion. This assumption was made due to the fact that the main symptom of migraine is nausea and vomiting.

Let’s say you feel nauseous after eating chocolate (and after a while, migraines begin). You might think that chocolate is a trigger, give it up and there will be no pain. But neuroscientists urge you to pay attention first of all to why you ate it. Was it an irresistible urge? If so, chocolate is a symptom, not a trigger, and most likely you are now in the prodromal stage.

Migraine Aura

About a third of people with migraine headaches have an aura symptom. It manifests itself in the form of blurred lines, spots, and sometimes partial temporary loss of vision. Since all types of migraines affect vision, but not all influences are considered an aura, it is very important to recognize this difference.

Neurophysiologists from the University of California San Francisco have found out what happens in the brain of a person who suffers from migraine with an aura. The cerebral cortex is made up of gray matter and is responsible for literally everything from receiving sensory signals to coordinating movements. The researchers found that during a migraine aura, electrical impulses run through the cortex over and over again. When the impulse travels through the brain, it blocks normal brain activity and induces changes in micro vascular tone. This process is called cortical spreading depression and is what causes pain. When the impulse travels through the part of the brain responsible for tactile sensations, we feel a tingling sensation in the skin. When it enters the visual cortex, we see hazy lines and spots. After the electrical impulse stops, the aura disappears.

Painful Phase

First, a little about the basics. The painful phase of migraine is characterized by sensitivity to light and touch, burning, throbbing pain, sweating, clammy skin, nausea and vomiting. Some people even start to speak slurred.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the causes of these symptoms, but it is believed that the main one is hypersensitivity to certain stimuli, triggers. Migraine sufferers may have different triggers (which also complicates research), but they all activate the trigeminal nerve, which transmits information the person receives to the brain. The fact is that such people have extra-sensory nerves, which, under excessive stress, can release serotonin into the brain. This leads to a rapid narrowing of the cerebral vessels, and excess blood is forced to pass through the external carotid artery, which dilates it and causes a painful attack. Since there are more platelets in the right hemisphere that release serotonin, this side of the head hurts more often during a migraine. Blood flow decreases in the part of the cortex responsible for vision:

Postdromal or Recovery Phase

This is an extremely poorly understood phase of migraine. The fact is that for a long time, scientists did not consider recovery from the painful phase as an independent stage of the disease. However, after the pain is over, you still feel unwell. A study published in the journal Neurology states that 89% of migraine sufferers go through the postdrome phase. The list of symptoms is very extensive: fatigue, dull pain, weakness, loss of energy, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes. However, scientists do not find any physiological or biological reasons for the development of this phase: it is not clear what exactly causes this “hangover”.

Why it is Important to Identify Triggers

It would seem that the cause of the pain is easy to identify: it is enough to listen to your body. Some people may realize that, for example, a particular type of wine is giving them headaches. But many at the same time are not able to figure out what exactly leads to the onset of migraines. In 2013, neurologists at Winston-Salem Medical Center, North Carolina, interviewed migraine sufferers about what exactly they believed to be triggers. They then looked at what factors caused these triggers and found no pattern.

Let’s say you suspect a migraine starts every time your period starts. But usually it is accompanied by discomfort and cramps, and you drink red wine to relieve tension. So what causes migraines: menstruation or wine? Maybe you like to have a glass of white, but often after it you have an unbearable headache? Sometimes everything works out, but after a couple of days a migraine occurs. What is the reason: white wine or just an evening with a glass of alcohol?

Neurophysiologists believe that even what seems insignificant can trigger full-blown migraines: weather, barometric pressure, not getting enough rest, sleep, and stress levels. Doctors advise keeping a diary and writing down absolutely everything in it: what you ate, whether you drank alcohol, whether you played sports, how much you slept and what pills you took. Perhaps, sooner or later, together with your doctor, you will be able to identify patterns and make your life much easier.

Light Sensitivity

One of the main symptoms of a severe migraine is a high sensitivity to light. In order to understand why so many people suffer from headaches, scientists from Harvard conducted a study that involved 2 groups of blind people suffering from migraines.

One group was completely blind due to accidents, and the other was almost blind due to degenerative diseases, but could still slightly distinguish color. When the experts turned on a bright light in the room with the first group, none of the subjects complained of increased pain. In the second group, everything was exactly the opposite: almost everyone said that the pain became stronger. Thus, the scientists concluded that the optic nerve, which was not damaged in this group, is responsible for the sensitivity to light. Moreover, even low light levels can lead to increased symptoms. Similar experiments on rats showed that the optic nerve transmits its signals directly to the center of the brain, which pulsates as a result of electrical impulses.

White Matter Involvement and Risk of Stroke

It sounds intimidating, but scientists hypothesize that regular migraines in the long term can lead to a number of brain damage. Doctors compared MRI scans of people with the condition and found that they all have a hyper intensity of white matter that communicates parts of the brain with each other. The more often the migraine occurs, the more active the substance, and the greater the risk of stroke. But this does not mean that migraine sufferers will end up with a stroke. You just need to be extra careful to control other things that can lead to a stroke, such as cholesterol levels.

Migraine and Hormones

Scientists have found that there is a direct link between estrogen and migraine: it turns out that the female sex more often than the male suffers from headaches precisely because of hormones. Already between the ages of 13 and 17, the ratio is approximately 3: 1, but after menopause, the frequency of female migraines decreases.

Scientists Johns Hopkins University and Carolina University compared MRI scans of 160,000 men and women and found a huge difference in how their brains respond to migraines. They also found that women with constantly fluctuating estrogen levels were more likely to have migraines than women with stable hormone levels. For some, hormonal contraceptives can help reduce the frequency of headaches.

About Zahid Shaukat

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