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What you need to know about migraines: symptoms and treatments

Siski Green / 29 August 2014

Is it a headache or a migraine, what causes it and what can you do to relieve the symptoms?

Cups of coffee
Coffee can be a migraine trigger for some people

Migraine symptoms build over time

Migraines are often felt in one specific spot on the head, but what differentiates them from headaches is that they are a chronic condition – they can occur as often as several times a week. And unlike headaches, which can come on quite quickly, a migraine usually builds over time and lasts longer. They can also feel more like your head is throbbing. Sensitivity to light is also more likely with a migraine, as is nausea and vomiting.

What causes or triggers migraines?

No one knows exactly what causes migraines but it’s thought it could be to do with chemicals in the brain and a restricting of the brain’s blood vessels.

There appears to be a genetic element to migraines as people who get them often have relatives who do too.

Cheese and coffee

Women are more prone to migraines than men and certain people will find that specific things trigger them, for example, stress, being overtired, some foods such as dairy products or coffee.

Some people ‘see’ flashing lights before a migraine is about to come on or they get blind spots, these types of visual disturbances are called ‘auras’ and can help in the sense that they give a person time to try to prevent the onset of symptoms.

Other signs that a migraine might be coming include constipation, hyperactivity, food cravings and frequent yawning.

Painkillers for migraine

You can try using over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetemol or ibuprofen to help relieve the symptoms of migraine – they are particularly effective if you can catch the migraine before symptoms have fully set in and it’s a good idea to use soluble or liquid-based painkillers as they are absorbed by the body more quickly. But for many people these types of painkillers won’t be completely effective.

Furthermore, if you have migraines very frequently taking medication so regularly can also be a problem. See your GP if your migraines are frequent and can’t be treated with standard painkillers and they may be able to prescribe you triptans, which work by constricting blood vessels in the brain which appears to reduce symptoms. Anti-sickness medications have also been found to be effective even for those who don’t experience nausea.

Some research has shown that patients can find some relief by taking feverfew daily to prevent the onset of migraines. Feverfew is a herb that contains parthenolide, and it’s this substance that is extracted for use in supplements.

Use lavender oil

Other options that may help alleviate symptoms include remedies that help relax you, such as scalp massage, for example. You can also try using essential oils such as lavender and peppermint oil which can help relax you and relieve symptoms.

If you are unsure about what could be triggering your migraines you could try a migraine trigger tracking app on your phone or tablet, or use The Migraine Trust's online migraine diary.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.