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What causes migraine? Hormone headache? Are genes to blame?


Migraine has plagued sufferers and puzzled doctors for centuries. And it’s the third most common condition in the world. For one in five women – and one in 15 men – the thundering headache intensified by the slightest movement, the crippling nausea and sometimes vomiting, the acute sensitivity to light, sound, smells and/or touch, are all too familiar. But migraine isn’t just a headache. Doctors now recognise it’s a complex neurological condition with several stages.

“New research techniques, plus the advent of sensitive MRI scans, are leading to a greater understanding of underlying mechanisms,” says leading migraine expert Professor Peter Goadsby. And the good news is, this is leading to new treatments.

What causes migraine?

Until recently, migraine was attributed to widening of blood vessels. But experts now believe it results from brain regions becoming over-sensitive to internal or external changes such as dehydration, sleep deprivation, skipping a meal, sunlight, changes in weather, or certain foods. This causes cells in the trigeminal nerve – the brain’s largest nerve serving the face – to release pain-producing chemicals, making the nerves around blood vessels acutely sensitive. This leads to the normal pulsating of blood in those vessels being felt as excruciating, throbbing pain. Before the pain sets in, one in five people experience auras – unnerving neurological disturbances such as dark or coloured spots, sparkles, ‘stars’ and zigzag lines, numbness or tingling, tinnitus or touch disturbances, dizziness and vertigo.

Are genes to blame?

Many migraine sufferers have a parent or sibling with the condition, and it’s thought genes could be the bullets that load the gun. Three potential genetic culprits that increase excitability in the brain have been identified, but other genes are likely involved too, which interact with the environment to cause migraine.

Hormone headache?

Menstrual migraines, which occur only around menstruation, affect two in five women. Thought to be triggered by the fall in oestrogen levels premenstruation, they may be exacerbated by prostaglandins, fatty acids involved in pain. Unfortunately, menopause doesn’t always bring relief, with around 45 per cent reporting migraine worsening, often after a period of relative stability. HRT helps some people but exacerbates the condition for others. Clonidine (dixarit), a high blood pressure drug, also licensed for hot flushes, may help too. But, says Dr Brendan Davies, “migraine is a bit of a chameleon. Post-menopause, it can lose intensity or morph into other symptoms, such as dizziness, light or noise sensitivity, fatigue, sleep disturbances, sensitive skin and mood changes.”

Treatment tactics

Various treatments can help. The most popular are over-the-counter painkillers or anti-inflammatories, anti-nausea medicines, low-dose aspirin or triptans (drugs that interfere with certain brain chemicals), either alone or in combination. If symptoms are severely disrupting life, anti-seizure medications, blood pressure drugs, certain antidepressants and/or botulinum injections may be prescribed to try to prevent attacks. None is perfect, but understanding the pattern of attacks can help your doctor tailor treatment.

Injection of hope

Four injectable drugs, the first ever to specifically target migraines, are showing promising results. Known as CGRPmonoclonal antibodies, they reduce the effects of a key culprit in migraine pain, a compound called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP). “It’s a very exciting time as at last we have the potential of genuinely groundbreaking new treatments capable of stopping migraine before it starts,” says Davies, chief UK investigator for two of the new drugs, which would be administered via monthly injection.


Seek medical help if you experience:

» Sudden onset headaches after age 50.

» An apparent aura for the first time – it can mimic a stroke or TIA (transient ischaemic attack) or mini stroke.

» Severe and sudden-onset headache that takes seconds to minutes to reach maximum intensity.

» A headache that’s worse than you have ever experienced.

» Headache with altered consciousness, memory loss, altered cognitive state or personality change.

» Progressive headache with fever and drowsiness.


Tension-type headache, rather than migraine, is what most of us mean when we talk about having a headache. Symptoms include a constant ache on both sides of the head, a tight neck and pressure behind the eyes.

Causes include:

» Dehydration… If a headache strikes, drink a glass of water (around 200-250ml) every 15-20 minutes until the pain subsides.

» Poor sleep… Practise a winddown routine, making sure your bedroom is dark, not too hot or cold and solely for sleeping in.

» Stress… Taking time out to practise breathing or mindfulness can help.

» Eye strain… Look away from the task in hand regularly, focusing on the middle distance. Check brightness, contrast and text size on screen.

» Muscle tension… Pay attention to how you sit and stand. You should be upright but not rigid, with a natural curve in your spine, and your lower back should be supported. Take a break hourly to stretch. Alexander Technique classes can help. For more, see

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