They're painful, frequent and come without warning: migraines. These intense headaches not only lead to a reduced quality of life, but they're disturbingly common, affecting millions of people everywhere, irrespective of age or gender (although they usually affect more women than men): Consider these sobering statistics from the Migraine Research Foundation:

  • Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world.
  • 12% of people around the world experience migraines.
  • 4 million people have chronic daily migraines, averaging 15 per month.

Many Canadians are all too familiar with these often debilitating headaches. According to the Ontario Migraine Clinic, approximately 25% of households have at least one person affected by migraines at least occasionally.

But why do they occur? How do they differ from regular headaches? Are there certain triggers that lead to these splitting headaches? Even more importantly, how can they be treated? Here's some additional information about migraines that can help you or someone you know who's affected by them.

"There are many different causes of migraines."

What Causes Them?
Perhaps the most vexing aspect of migraines is there's no known singular cause; they occur at random times, all depending on the person who is experiencing them. These triggers can include stress, certain types of medication - both over-the-counter and prescription - behaviours like overexertion during exercise and environmental conditions. Smog, air pressure changes or strong odors are some of the more common environmental triggers. The key is recognizing what brings them on and avoiding them as much as possible.

How Do They Differ From Regular Headaches?
As the Migraine Research Foundation points out, migraines are more than simple headaches. Both are unpleasant, but with headaches, they're usually confined to the head, as its title would suggest. They're also fairly infrequent. Migraines, on the other hand, are not only more common, but tend to produce other symptoms in addition to throbbing head pain. These can include vomiting, dizziness, nausea and visual disturbances, known as aura. An estimates 25% of people who suffer from migraines experience aura, the symptoms of which can last 60 minutes or longer. In short, the main distinction between the two is severity, commonality and multiple symptoms.

How Are Migraines Treated?
Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet to counter the effects of migraine headaches. However, there are certain types of treatments that prove effective in some people. According to the Canadian Headache Society, doctors may prescribe triptans, which increase the production of serotonin in the brain. This reduces inflammation and eases the blood vessels. Over-the-counter medicines may also help, including aspirin and acetaminophen. Several natural vitamins, minerals and herbs that can be effective in the way of prevention as well. B vitamins, magnesium, coenzyme Q-10 and perennial shrub butterbur are a few of them. 

Migraine sufferers have lots of place where they can go to learn more. Visit the Canadian Headache Society and the Migraine Research Foundation websites for the very latest in what the medical world is doing to help people experience fewer attacks so they can lead more pain-free lives.