Migraine Triggers

What kinds of things can trigger a migraine?

The cascade of neurological glitches that cause migraines can be set in motion by exposure to many things in daily life, though not all sufferers respond to the same triggers.

One of the most common triggers is stress. When the pressure is on, your body undergoes various physical changes, including alterations in brain chemicals, blood flow, and oxygen supply. “They can all play a role in migraines,” says psychologist Jeanetta Rains, a spokeswoman for the American Headache Society. However, it often takes a day or two before these changes result in a headache, which is why a hectic workweek can lead to a migraine.

So can the weather; according to recent research, more than half of migraine patients say they’re affected by specific climate patterns, with cool, dry stretches being the most common headache trigger.

Alcohol (especially red wine) and foods that contain MSG, tyramine (found in aged cheeses), or nitrates and nitrites (contained in preserved meats) can also stir up a migraine. A 1997 study suggests that chocolate does not cause migraines, as many people believe — although a craving for chocolate may signal that a headache is on its way.

If you think you’re having migraines, Rains advises keeping a “headache diary.” Write down the date and time the pain set in, how it felt, the foods you ate that day, and what’s been going on at work and home. “That can help you and your doctor figure out what your particular triggers are,” Rains says. Then it’s up to the migraineur to follow a plan, whether that means avoiding certain foods, sticking to a sleep schedule, or finding a way to cope with stress through some form of relaxation training.

Is it a migraine?

The word migraine is often used incorrectly to describe any severe headache. Here’s a look at the three major types:

Tension headaches cause dull, steady pain that’s felt throughout the head. The most common type of headache, it has many causes, including stress, eye strain, and muscle tension in the neck and head. Tension headaches can usually be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers and rest. If they become frequent, though, consult a doctor.

Cluster headaches are often said to be the most painful. Thankfully, they afflict less than 1 percent of Americans (men get them five times more frequently than women do) and usually last no longer than 90 minutes. Why the name? Patients can be headache free for months, then get up to three a day for weeks. Some medications may ease the pain, as does inhaling pure oxygen.

Migraine headaches cause severe, throbbing pain, often on only one side of the head. A migraine sufferer may become nauseated and unable to tolerate bright lights or loud noises. About 20 to 30 percent of migraineurs experience an “aura” minutes or hours before the pain starts. Auras often take the form of heightened sense of smell or hearing, or visual disturbances.


Migraine patient education. MayoClinic.com. http://www.mayoclinic.com/invoke.cfm?id=DS00120

Your guide to migraines. The Cleveland Clinic. 2002. http://my.webmd.com/content/article/46/1826_50692.htm?lastselectedguid={5FE84E90-BC77-4056-

Prince BP, Rapoport A. Weather causes big headache for some (conference news update). Clinician Reviews. Nov 2001.

Marcus DA, et al. A double-blind provocative study of chocolate as a trigger of headache. Cephalalgia. December 1997.17(8):855-62

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