University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Andrew Russo, PhD
Professor of Physiology
First Published: November 2000
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
- Everyone experiences a headache from time to time. While
certainly not enjoyable, it does go away with a little rest and
possibly a pain reliever. Migraines, on the other hand, are much
more severe than common headaches.
- "Migraines are typically distinguished by a severe throbbing
headache that usually affects only one side of the head and is
often accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound, as well as
nausea," said Andrew Russo, PhD, professor in the UI Department
of Physiology and Biophysics.
- Approximately 26 million Americans suffer from migraine
headaches. The severe pain often associated with a migraine, from
the temple to the back of the neck, can last anywhere from four to
72 hours. Individuals who have migraines may experience dizziness,
numbness, double vision, drowsiness, and even vomiting before and
during an attack.
- The cause of migraine headaches is not concretely known.
However, according to Russo, most experts believe there are both
genetic and environmental components.
- "The genetic component most likely makes some people more
susceptible to the environmental and physiological changes that
cause a migraine," Russo said. "It is safe to say that migraines
tend to run in families."
- Preconceived notions that men do not have migraine attacks are
untrue. However, women seem to experience migraines more
frequently, especially during menstrual cycles. "Women are three
times more likely to get migraines than men," Russo said.
- Medication is often the first treatment people seek, but the
body's response may vary. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as
aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen may provide some relief. If
these medications do not help, the next step is to consult with a
health care provider.
- Several medications may need to be tried before an effective
one is found. While medications may provide relief, it is also
important to be able to cope with migraines without using
- "The best non-drug method for treating migraines is to
minimize light and sound and to fall asleep. Once asleep, the body
can apparently 'snap out' of the migraine," Russo said. "But the
best therapy is to learn what triggers the migraine and avoid that
- What actually causes a migraine may vary, and several triggers
may occur in different combinations. Each individual, however,
tends to have the same recurring triggers. These fall into three
main categories: foods, environmental factors, and physiological
- Food triggers can vary, from chocolate, dairy products and
citrus fruits to preserved meats, coconut oil and salt.
Environmental triggers include strong odors, loud noises, weather
changes and even fluorescent lighting. Physiological triggers,
like food, can be controlled. Keeping stress low, exercising, and
getting adequate sleep are a few examples of ways to help prevent
a migraine from occurring.
- Understanding all the various migraine symptoms, triggers, and
treatments can be tricky. Therefore, it is important for
individuals to know what their symptoms and triggers are, as well
as what treatment works best for them. Keeping a doctor regularly
informed about any changes will allow for better migraine
For related information; see Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, 319-384-5089