Have you ever had a headache that you couldn’t shake, even for hours or days? One that may make you nauseous or unable to function? Then you may have had a migraine. And you’re not alone. A survey from 1990 to 2010 found that about 15% of the world’s population have migraines each year. That makes migraines the third-highest source of long-term injury! Women are around twice as likely to get migraines than men.
Migraines can be broadly lumped into two categories based on frequency, episodic and chronic. People with episodic migraines experience between 0 and 14 days with migraines a month. More than that and the condition is called chronic migraine. The difference between these two categories isn’t set, and a small percentage of those with either condition may evolve or degrade into the other. Either way, migraines are debilitating. They last hours to days and may be accompanied by an aura: a visual indication of an impending bad day.
The exact underlying causes of migraines are unknown, but there are some areas where intervention is possible. The pain and debilitating effects of migraines are caused, at least in part, by something called vasodilation. This is just a fancy term for when blood vessels expand, allowing more fluid to pass through. Vasodilation can occur for many reasons, but one of the main suspects in migraines is a protein called CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide, for the curious). This protein acts on the coverings of the brain, causing vasodilation that inflames this area. It is unclear exactly what happens after this, but the end result is debilitating pain. It has even been shown that injecting CGRP can cause a migraine to start.
Interventions against this vasodilation are possible through a couple of different routes. One of the classic ways of tackling a migraine is through a medication called Dihydroergotamine, or DHE for short. This medication causes some arteries in the brain to constrict, counteracting the vasodilation from CGRP. This can “interrupt” the migraine and provide relief. This relief often effectively ends the migraine. DHE has been available for injection in the US for some time, though in other countries it is available as a nasal spray. Researchers are working to get approval for this method in the US as well.
Another intervention being researched is stopping the vasodilation at the source. There is ongoing research in stopping CGRP from acting on the brain coverings at all. This is a new avenue that may help provide migraine relief with fewer side effects. Research in this field is also ongoing, ask us about the different ways you can help provide research insight into relief for this real headache of a condition.
Written by: Benton Lowey-Ball, B.S. Behavioral Neuroscience
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