Q&A: Common triggers for migraines

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Although we are still discovering why certain individuals suffer from migraines, we know the factors that contribute to their frequency and severity.

Q: What are some common triggers for migraines?

A: Migraines are not “bad headaches.” While headaches can cause temporary irritation and discomfort, migraines are a more serious neurological disorder. Migraines are the third most common illness worldwide, affecting nearly 12 percent of all men, women and children.

Migraines can cause severe pain and debilitating symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, disorientation and hypersensitivity to light, sound, touch and smell. These throbbing, episodic attacks can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. This means migraine sufferers may miss one or more days of work due to a single episode.

Although we are still discovering why certain individuals suffer from migraines, we know the factors that contribute to their frequency and severity.

Physiological Factors: Hormonal changes play a large role in triggering migraines, which is likely why women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men. Fluctuations in estrogen levels during menstruation, hormonal contraception, pregnancy or menopause can all act as triggers for women.

Rigorous dieting and skipping or delaying meals can also trigger migraines by creating abnormally low blood sugar level (hypoglycemia). Increased stress and changes to your normal sleep pattern can also play a role. 

Environmental Factors: Bright lights, loud noises and strong odors — such as cleaning solvents and perfumes — are some of the more recognizable migraine triggers in home and work environments. Weather-related environmental changes — such as high humidity, extreme temperatures and changes in barometric pressure — also can increase your risk of migraines. 

Ingested Items: The food, drink and medications we ingest are some of the largest contributing factors to migraines. Hot dogs, lunch meats and other high-nitrate foods can increase your risk. Caffeine and alcohol — red wine is a specific trigger for some — can dehydrate you, causing more frequent and severe attacks. Additionally, use of pain relief medications two or more times per week can create dependency, increase risk of migraines and even lead to withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped.

As common as migraines are throughout the population, their specific triggers can vary greatly from person to person and from episode to episode. Before seeking medication, talk to your primary care physician to help identify your triggers, work on a treatment plan and learn how to limit your risk for future episodes.

Anda Oprea, DO, is a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Associates – Springfield.