Migraine Triggers vs. Symptoms

What is a migraine?

A migraine headache can cause intense throbbing or pulsing in one area of the head and is commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.  Migraine attacks can cause significant pain for hours to days and be so severe that all you can think about is finding a dark, quiet place to lie down.  Some migraines are preceded or accompanied by sensory warning symptoms (aura), such as flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your arm or leg.  Medications can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.

How can you tell the difference between a trigger and a symptom? 

There are many things that can trigger a migraine to those who are prone to them. Triggers can include foods, drinks, certain physical activities and exercise, sleep deprivation, stress, odors, bright lights, hormones and even medications can bring one on.  Migraine triggers can vary from person to person.  Distinguishing between triggers and symptoms is challenging for patients and doctors alike, as some factors may fall somewhere between an actual trigger and a symptom.  For example, bright lights can be induced by the migraine, in the way lights are perceived not be the cause of the headache.  

 Why have some triggers been deemed responsible for the headaches? 

Most of the evidence migraines triggers comes what patients have self-reported, telling us what they thought were the factors responsible for their headaches.  How patients think about migraines will often influence how they experience them, much like a placebo effect.  If you’re convinced a certain food will a trigger a migraine, your suspicion might become a reality.  That’s not to say lights will never cause a migraine, but it is important to separate triggers and symptoms to better understand the headaches themselves and what actually brings them on. 

Researchers have a better understanding of migraines without auras.  They have identified certain chemical triggers that have led to the development of a new class of migraine drugs, for example, but migraines with auras continue to be more of a mystery.  These findings indicate that some long-held truths about avoiding triggers that can induce migraines with aura may be outdated.  If you feel that a certain food, smell or activity triggers a migraine, test it out so you can know for sure and not live in avoidance of it.