Up to one quarter of the population has a migraine headache at some time in their life and about 10 percent have them regularly. They usually start in childhood or adolescence, are at their worst in the 30’s and 40’s and then decline. Very often they run in families. The classic migraine begins with a warming “aura” – flashing lights in one eye, blurring, blind sports, distortion of vision, and tingling of the arms or face. After about 30-60 minutes the headache begins, usually on one side but sometimes all over. It is a pounding, excruciating pain which usually lasts for four to six hours.
The more common “common migraine” may lack the warning symptoms, and the headache may be far longer lasting, although equally awful. The patient can feel irritable or depressed for hours or even days beforehand. But symptoms vary widely – periods of paralysis, dizziness, or even loss of consciousness are all reported.
Attacks may be triggered off by all sorts of thing. Common ones include: food – alcohol in general and red wine in particular, chocolate and caffeine; fasting: stress – strong emotional reactions and fatigue; changes in the weather or altitude; hormonal changes such as those caused by menstruation or taking birth control pills. Slightly more women than men suffer with migraines.
Although the cause is not known, the pain and other symptoms seem to be related to changes in the size of the blood vessels feeding the brain.
Other types of headache: the most fearsome sort are the cluster headaches which happen frequently – daily or several times a week – for weeks or months and then stop for months at a time. They are much more common in men, usually young men. They last for about an hour and the pain is almost exclusively on one side of the head, often around or behind the eye. It is so severe that sufferers often run around in despair and may even commit suicide.
The common “tension headaches” which nearly everyone gets sometimes are caused by involuntary tensing of the face and neck muscles over a long period, usually after concentrating hard or because of stress. The pain is a steady ache, which can last for hours or days, around the back of the head and neck, in the forehead, and around the eyes.