Scientists are researching the causes migraines in order to find ways to prevent them, treat the, or even cure them. Right now, there is no cure for migraines, so treatment options are aimed at prevention and reduction of symptoms. Let’s take a look at what the scientists have found to be the inner-working of a migraine, beginning with a simple anatomy of the brain.
We now know that the brain has no feeling. You can see this in action if you ever watch a science program on television (you can admit you are!) where they are performing types of stereotactic surgeries. In these procedures, patients are awake so they can describe changes that they feel as certain parts of their brain are touched. Proof positive that the brain itself does not feel pain, which to me is just weird!
The pain felt during a migraine is coming from nerve endings, blood vessels, and tissues that surround the brain and are located in the scalp. Those nerve endings affect the muscles of the head and face, causing constriction and dilation. This is the area that scientists investigate when it comes to migraine research.
So, what can the brain tell us?
Migraines may be caused by abnormalities in any one of these areas:
Ion channel problems – There are channels that regulate the influx and outgoing of certain necessary ions in the body: sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Your muscles use these ions for contraction and relaxation. When there is a problem with regulation of these ions, it can lead to the development of migraines.
Neurotransmitter deficiency – Neurotransmitters are brain chemical messengers that attach to different areas of the brain to elicit certain effects. For instance, when serotonin is released and it attaches to different sites, it increases the feeling of well-being and also helps us to sleep. Other messengers like dopamine and norepinephrine are also important for proper brain functioning. When the proper levels of these neurotransmitters is too low, it can trigger both mild and severe headaches.
Magnesium deficiency – When magnesium is low, nerves may begin to misfire. This deficiency has been shown to be prevalent in migraine sufferers who experience auras, including both visual and sensory disturbances. Eating foods rich in magnesium is imperative for good health overall. Avoiding drinks with aspartame could also be helpful as it is believed the use of aspartame on a regular basis can increase toxicity in the body specifically in someone who has a magnesium deficiency. This can result in headaches and migraines. Absorption problems may also be the culprit, so discuss this with your doctor. Also keep in mind that too much magnesium can contribute to diarrhea, so make sure you are not over doing it. (More on Magnesium for Migraines)
Estrogen level fluctuations – Keeping stable levels of estrogen in your system can help alleviate migraine symptoms. When the levels of estrogen fluctuate, as it does for a women during her normal menstrual cycle, a woman who’s pregnant, and a women in perimenopause, it can be a trigger. When migraines are debilitating and estrogen proves to be the problem, your doctor may suggest hormone replacement therapy. There are both natural and synthetic hormones that can be used. Explore all the options with your doctor. I myself have this as a trigger, I am not on replacement therapy, but instead make sure that during my period I am very cautious about making sure none of my other triggers are present. This helps dramatically reduce the number of migraines.
Protein fragments – Called peptides, these fragments can be released in the body during periods of stress. In the brain, they dilate the blood vessels leading to an inflammatory response. This may over-excite the nerves in the trigeminal pathway. The trigeminal nerve pathway innervates the nerves that run through the head and face. If they go haywire, it can lead to pain.
Nitric oxide pollution – This is the air pollutant that can be found in engine exhaust. We’ve seen evidence to indicate that inhaling a lot of this pollutant can lead to migraine headaches. If you’ve ever been stuck in a traffic jam and start to experience a headache, it may be because you are breathing in nitric oxide.
Check with your doctor about diagnostic testing to see if there is a physical abnormality contributing to your migraine headaches. Bring in a checklist of all your concerns, as well as your migraine headache log so you can pinpoint exactly when you suffer migraines most often. Getting to the root cause using this scientific research will give you the best possible chances of fighting back against migraines. At the same time remember the hardest part of a migraine is that everyone is different and they are still very misunderstood by the medical world.
I also recommend you read The Migraine Brain to understand more causes.