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“Not tonight, honey, I’ve got a headache” might be a common sitcom punchline -- but for 36 million men and women in the U.S., headaches are no laughing matter. That’s how many people in America suffer from migraine headaches, which can cause an intense throbbing or pulsing sensation in one area of the head and are commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to sound. To prevent migraines, one must first find the trigger -- and that can be trickier than you’d think.

The Rumor: Migraines are strictly stress-related

It’s a long-held belief that migraines are stress-related… and sometimes that’s true. “Stress is a very common cause of migraine headaches,” says migraine expert Jack Chapman, MD, medical director of Advanced Migraine Relief. “This stress may be physical, psychological or emotional.” However, recent studies have found there are many other triggers, too.

The Verdict: Lots of things can bring on a migraine

"Migraines are triggered or activated by some things we understand and some we do not,” says Peter Goadsby, MD, a neurologist from the Headache Center at University of California San Francisco who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of migraines. “It seems clear that hormonal change with menstruation is a trigger. Consuming alcohol or eating foods that contain nitrates are also common triggers. Changes in sleep patterns, eating patterns and exercise patterns can trigger migraines as well.” Goadsby says that what’s frustrating for both patient and doctor alike is that migraine triggers vary so much between individuals. What might trigger a migraine in Sam won’t trigger a migraine in Sally, and vice versa. And what may trigger Sam’s migraine one day won’t trigger one the next. It’s a very individual science.

Michael P. Horan, MD, a neurologist at Desert Institute of Specialty Care in Las Vegas, says other common migraine triggers include strong perfumes, second-hand smoke exposure, allergies and certain foods such as chocolate, cheese, nuts and wine. While researchers search for causes of migraines all the time, Horan says a recent study that found migraines are triggered by brain abnormalities is inconclusive. He says another study that linked migraines to obesity also requires further research, as conflicting data exists.

Goadsby recommends that when your next migraine hits, you shut off the lights to short-circuit your pain, since migraines often increase sensitivity to light. And keep a headache diary to help you narrow down your own personal migraine triggers and spot patterns over time, so you can identify and avoid them in the future.


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