25 Jun 2014 10:52:04 MDT Written by: Leann Tobin


In June, the National Headache Foundation is sponsoring Migraine and Headache Awareness Month to bring awareness to chronic headache disorders, including migraines, which prevent nine out of ten sufferers from functioning normally. 

When a migraine headache strikes, people may experience warning signs or an aura.  An aura is typically marked by flashing lights and colors, temporary loss of vision, a prickly or burning sensation, muscle weakness or restlessness.  An aura typically lasts 15-30 minutes.  It may occur before, during or after a migraine. 

For now, a frontline defense against migraine and other types of headaches is identifying the common triggers and avoiding them.  Since headache triggers are unique to each individual, keeping a diary of what you experienced, encountered or ingested at the time of the headache can help.  Some common triggers include red wine, caffeine withdrawal, missed meals or sleep, bright or flickering lights, aged cheeses, changing weather conditions and food additives, such as nitrites.   

We also know that, for women, hormone fluctuations play a role.  About 70 percent of all migraine sufferers are women, and around the same percentage report their headaches are related to their menstrual cycles.  Termed "menstrual migraines," these headaches are thought to be caused by the changing level of estrogen in the body.  Certain types of birth control pills and menopausal hormone replacement therapy have been linked to menstrual migraines.  

Tension headaches are the most common type.  They're provoked by clenched muscles in the shoulders, neck, head and jaw.  Tension headache sufferers often report long work hours, lack of sleep, missed meals and alcohol use.  Symptoms include a tightening band-like ache around the head, a sensation of pressure or pulling, and contractions of the head and neck muscles.  

Over-the-counter and prescriptions medications are used to treat tension headaches.  Biofeedback, which utilizes special equipment to monitor a person's breathing, pulse, heart rate, muscle tension and other body responses can help people learn how to control their stress reactions.  Some people also report headache relief from using alternative techniques, such as acupuncture and herbal therapies. 

Thought to be caused by chemical reactions in the brain, cluster headaches may be the most intense and severe type.  They typically occur with no warning and come in groups, often on only one side of the head.  The attack may be accompanied by a tearing or bloodshot eye and a runny nose.  Prescription medication and oxygen may be used to treat cluster headaches.    

Most headaches respond to over-the-counter medication.  But they can indicate much more serious conditions that demand a trip to the emergency room or a call to 911.  A sudden or severe headache, for example, might be caused by a stroke, meningitis or encephalitis.  Prompt medical attention is warranted when a headache follows a head injury, gets worse even with rest and medication, or is accompanied by any of these symptoms: stiff neck, fever, confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness, nausea and vomiting, or difficulty speaking.   

For more information, visit the National Headache Foundation website at

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