5 Migraine Myths

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Don't let these misconception keep you from getting headache relief

1 If it were a migraine, I'd know it.
REALITY Statistically, it's likely that you wouldn't. In fact, multiple medical studies have shown that half of all people with migraines have not been properly diagnosed by a doctor, either because they haven't sought medical help or because their primary care doctors missed the clues. How do you know to ask? If over-the-counter pain or allergy meds don't ease the head pain you think may be caused by tension, your period, sinus problems, or allergies, you may have migraines. Talk to your doctor about it.

2 Migraines are just really bad headaches.

REALITY A migraine is far more than a bad headache. It's what is called a primary headache, which means that it's a clinical condition in and of itself, not merely a symptom of another disorder, such as a sinus problem or a head injury.

Migraines are characterized by throbbing head pain, usually located on one side, and are often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Attacks are episodic or chronic and can last from 4 to 72 hours. The combination of disabling pain and nausea often keeps migraine sufferers from their daily activities.

Another distinction between migraines and regular headaches: Migraines are often hereditary. If both parents have migraines, there's a 75% chance their child will, too. If one parent has these headaches, the odds are 50% for the offspring. In fact, a child runs a 20% risk of having migraines if even a distant relative has them.

3 Stress and other psychological problems cause migraines.

REALITY Migraines are a neurological disorder, not a psychological one. Although scientists aren't sure exactly what causes these headaches, they now believe that during attacks, inflammation that results from an interaction between the main sensory nerve of the brain and blood vessels causes the intense pain. Stress (and anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties) may trigger that response, but it's not the cause of the migraines.

4 It's not a migraine unless you see an aura or visual fireworks beforehand.

REALITY Not every sufferer experiences visual symptoms. There are two subsets of migraine--those with visual fireworks (or auras) and those without. Less than a third of migraine sufferers experience the visual warning sign that a headache is about to arrive. If you're one of them, flashing lights, zigzag patterns, or blind spots in your vision--or, less frequently, tingling or pins and needles in your limbs--may show up 15 minutes to an hour prior to the headache.

5 You can cure migraines by avoiding certain foods, like chocolate.

REALITY You may be able to curb the frequency of migraines by avoiding anything that triggers them--and many foods do--but diet won't cure these monster headaches.

Among the most common food triggers are alcohol; foods that contain the chemical tyramine (aged cheeses, sour cream, yogurt), which constricts blood vessels; chocolate; dairy products; and foods that contain additives such as nitrites (cold cuts, for example), MSG, and aspartame. You may have a reaction to one or more of these foods. The only way to identify your particular trigger is to keep a diary that lists everything you eat and notes when you have a migraine.

No one is really sure why some foods bring on these headaches. In some cases, as with tyramine-containing foods, it may be a chemical that causes blood vessel constriction, which is part of the migraine process.

You can also avoid migraines by never fasting-that can be another trigger--and keeping caffeine intake steady. Skip your regular morning brew for a few days, and the result may be a migraine.

PHOTO (COLOR): Surprise trigger: a dip in caffeine

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