When a Headache is Something More Serious: Everything You Need to Know About Migraines

With all the stress that college can bring, the last thing we want on our minds — literally — is a throbbing headache. Luckily, over-the-counter painkillers or even just a little bit of extra sleep can usually cure us. But what happens when none of our remedies work, and it turns out our head pains are actually migraines? As collegiettes™, we always need to stay on top of our game, so it’s important to be aware of the difference between headaches and migraines — and what we can do about those intense pains.

Why Collegiettes™ Should be Aware of Migraines
According to the Westchester Headache Center, migraines frequently occur in people between the ages of 15 and 55, and occur more frequently among women, which means that a collegiette™ may be particularly susceptible. “It’s because of the hormonal changes! When a girl gets her menstrual cycle, she gets more painful headaches,” says Dr. Alexander Mauskop, a specialist at the New York Headache Center. In addition, college provides a prime migraine-triggering environment. “The amount of reading in college, compared to high school, definitely increases my migraines. My sleep schedule and the college party scene also contribute to more intense headaches,” says Megan, a sophomore at American University who has been getting migraines since she was 12 years old. And in a fast-paced school environment, letting these head pains slow us down just won’t do.

Headaches vs. Migraines: What’s the Difference?
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t a migraine just a more intense version of a headache? Unfortunately, it’s not. While headaches cause mild-to-moderate pain and can occur in anybody, migraines are a medical condition that is a result of a central nervous system disorder and are extremely debilitating — while headaches can be irritating, a particularly bad migraine can make it physically impossible to get through our day-to-day activities.

What Are Migraines?  
Migraines affect about 28 million people in America each year, and may result from a combination of chemicals releasing from nerve fibers that are wrapped around the blood vessels and vasodilatation. In English? Migraines occur when the brain’s blood vessels are altered: the main paths that fluids enter into the brain through are made larger or smaller, causing pain.
 
While headaches always take place on both sides of the head, migraines are a throbbing pain that occurs most commonly on only one side of your head; however, the pain can change sides with every attack. In addition to this intense pain, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea may accompany migraines. Migraines can be so severe that they are actually undermining, unlike tension headaches. “When I was in middle school, my migraines were so bad, I couldn’t even do my homework,” says Megan.

Though the exact root cause of migraines is still a mystery, there are a number of things that have been proven to trigger migraine attacks:

  • Lack of or too much sleep
  • Skipped meals
  • Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors
  • Weather changes
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Foods that contain nitrates (such as hot dogs and lunch meats)
  • Foods that contain MSG (such as fast food, broths, seasoning, and spices)
  • Aspartame (such as NutraSweet® and Equal®)

I don’t know about you, but this list screams “college” to me: we party, eat questionable dining hall food, get little sleep, and chug coffee like there’s no tomorrow. If those intense head pains aren’t cured with ibuprofen, there are two types of migraines to watch out for. 

Migraines with Aura
These migraines are also known as classical migraines. To break it down for you, aura refers to the sensory symptoms, which begin 10 to 30 minutes before a migraine attack. Aura symptoms include:

  • Seeing flashing lights, zigzag lines, or blind spots
  • A numbing or tingling sensation in the face or hands
  • A troubled sense of smell, taste, and touch
  • Feeling mentally sluggish

Migraines without Aura
Known as a common migraine, this condition is equipped with the pulsing head pains but lack the sensory symptoms. Even though you will not experience aura, you can expect other migraine symptoms, like nausea and diarrhea.
 
While common migraines and classical migraines may seem similar, classical migraines do have more of a health risk. “About 20 percent of people have migraines with aura. If you have migraine with aura, your risk of stroke goes up a little bit. We tell people who have migraines with aura to avoid other risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and medications with estrogen,” warns Mauskop.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?
Could the smallest tension headache be a migraine attack? Don’t stress too much, collegiettes™, you shouldn’t seek medical attention unless you are experiencing the migraine symptoms above, which don’t go away with over-the-counter painkillers and medication. Headaches that become continuously worse may require medical attention, as well. “If you have acute headaches, which are very mild tension headaches, and they start getting worse,” says Mauskop. If your headaches do become unbearable, Mauskop
warns, “Just see a doctor to make sure there’s no contributing cause. People are afraid of brain tumors, those are rare, but a low functioning thyroid can also cause headaches.” Better safe than sorry, right?
 
How Should You Be Treated?
Unfortunately for us, migraines can neither be prevented nor cured; however, we can treat these nuisances and suppress the triggers. “We can make people’s lives better by lowering the frequency,” says Mauskop, “What we first do is try to identify causes and triggers and then try to address those. We check the lifestyle, sleep patterns, eating patterns, hormonal balances, exercise, caffeine intake, and medications.” There are so many different ways to treat a migraine because no two migraines are the same. It is imperative to figure out which form of treatment is best for your body.
 
Sometimes, mistreating your migraines can leave you with even more problems. “They put me on a dangerous amount of blood pressure medicine. My family has a history of heart problems, so it was very worrisome to my pediatrician. And [the medicine] wasn’t really working so I took a lot of pain killers,” says Megan. At this point of her diagnosis, it seemed as if this less-than-perfect treatment was the only way to get rid of a fraction of the pain. “A friend of mine, who had a similar history of migraines, recommended an all natural neurologist. The doctor slowly took me off the blood medicine and tested me for food allergies. She found out that I was allergic to wheat, diary, and corn; she recommended changing my diet and adding natural supplements, like fish oil pills, to treat my migraine,” says Megan. Thankfully, this all-natural alternative was extremely successful: “Slowly, my migraines started getting less and less. Eventually, I had a migraine once a month,” she says.

Medicate without the Medicine?

  • You should be kind to your body: know when enough is enough and try to eat healthy in the dining hall. A lot of people in college forget about that,” Megan stresses.
  • Exercising leaves you feeling energized and in some cases, migraine-free!
  • It may be hard in college, but getting a good night’s sleep will decrease the amount of migraines you encounter.
  • “I recommend you don’t drink too much caffeine. It helps in small amounts. But if you drink caffeine daily, it’s more likely you’ll get headaches, mostly from withdrawal of caffeine,” says Mauskop. 
  • "Putting an eye mask in your fridge really helps. Most of them are microwavable, so the warm sensation may help you. And you always have a fridge or microwave in college,” Megan suggests.

The ugly truth is that headaches of all types and severities happen and we cannot schedule them in our planners. While giving up our college lives — parties, schoolwork and the occasional coffee craving — is never going to happen, it is important to be aware of what our head is telling us, literally! If not, we’ll be laying in bed and missing out on all of the fun!

Sources:
Dr. Alexander Mauskop, specialist at the New York Headache Center
Megan, American University sophomore
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