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Migraines are common problem; 36 million affected nationwide

September 21, 2010
By GARRETT NEESE Houghton Daily Mining Gazette

HANCOCK - As a neurologist at Portage Health, Christian Dinsmore has seen his share of patients with migraine headaches.

"It's definitely the most common diagnosis for which I see patients, and I think that'd be true for most general neurologists," he said.

The condition afflicts about 36 million Americans, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Before the headache begins, suffers may go through an initial phase with symptoms including fatigue and sensitivity to light, followed by an "aura" phase where they see flashing lights or squiggles. The headache itself can last from four hours to three days, with a typical length of about 24 hours.

Depending on the patient's history and symptoms, lab testing and imaging may be done to exclude other factors.

"To some extent, it's useful to know whether the patient has a family history, and part of the diagnosis also comes from excusing other possibilities," Dinsmore said.

Generally, Dinsmore said, they're worried about causes such as hemorrhages, strokes or tumors.

"Migraines are so very common, and those other things are fortunately very uncommon, and we don't run into those serious causes too often," he said.

Many patients with migraine headaches mistakenly assume they have sinus headaches, Dinsmore said.

Remedies fall into two categories. Some patients require preventative therapy and must take medication every day to reduce their headaches' frequency and severity. Others take either prescription or over-the-counter drugs to use when their headache starts to eliminate or lessen it. However, Dinsmore said, overuse of over-the-counter medications can also make the migraines more common.

Many patients will also benefit from exercise and other lifestyle adjustments, Dinsmore said.

Females are much more likely to suffer from migraines than males. Between ages 30 to 39 - the peak years for migraines - as many as 25 percent of women may get migraines, compared to 7 percent of men.

As the majority of cases occur after puberty and before menopause, Dinsmore said the disparity may have its roots in hormones.

Researchers are still trying to uncover what causes migraines. There could be a genetic component that lowers someone's threshold for migraines, Dinsmore said, along with environmental triggers.

"The physiology of a migraine is very complicated, and surprisingly poorly understood given how common these things are," he said.



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