Anyone who has ever experienced a migraine knows the misery associated with this condition. The throbbing headache and other symptoms can seem unbearable at times. Some of these symptoms, such as migraine eye pain, are actually very common.
What causes migraines? What kinds of visual problems occur? How do doctors treat migraines? Can you prevent migraines? Read on to learn about why migraines happen, and medications and other treatment options that might provide relief.
How a Migraine Occurs
A migraine is a type of headache often characterized by severe throbbing pain. It’s known as a primary headache because it’s not a sign of an underlying health problem. Symptoms often become worse when migraine sufferers are exposed to sound or light.
Why do migraines occur? It has to do with the activation of pain signals.
When migraine attacks occur, nerves in the blood vessels activate, sending pain signals to the brain.
But researchers aren’t sure what causes that activation.
It appears that the middle of the brain is the area where migraine pain is generated. Nerve cells send out pain impulses to the brain. The brain reacts by producing certain triggering chemicals. These chemicals cause blood vessels in the brain to swell, putting pressure on the nearby nerve endings. This is what leads to the intense pain of migraines.1
If you have a headache 15 days or more each month – and you suffer from the symptoms of a migraine headache at least eight of those days – you have what is known as a chronic migraine.
Chronic migraine is rare. It only happens to about 1 percent of people. It is believed that about 2.5 percent of people who have migraines will eventually develop chronic migraines.2
Migraine With Aura
The word “aura” is used to describe the warning sensations that can accompany a migraine. Auras frequently appear as dramatic visual displays. You might suddenly develop blind spots or see flashing lights. You might also see lines in a zigzag pattern, or notice that shapes are distorted.
Other people experience auras as a tingling sensation in the arms or face, ringing in the ears, or just feeling “funny.”
Researchers believe that auras occur due to the excitement of nerves.3
A migraine without aura is simply a migraine that doesn’t include the “early warning” symptoms associated with migraine with aura.4
People with migraines suffer a wide range of symptoms. The most prevalent symptom is throbbing pain. It usually starts as a dull ache and often moves from one side of the head to the other.
Symptoms associated with migraines will usually set in before the actual migraine starts. This can be anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days in advance.
In addition to throbbing eye pain, people with migraines may experience:
- Blurred vision
- Abdominal pain
- Neck pain
Photophobia – An Eye-Related Migraine Symptom
Photophobia, or sensitivity to light, is one of the more common migraine symptoms. Everyone has some degree of sensitivity to light, but people with photophobia are extremely sensitive.
When someone with photophobia has migraines, the pain can be even worse. The only way to find relief is to stay in a dark room, or one that has as little light as possible.
Unfortunately, though, this approach only increases light sensitivity. It makes it harder for people to function when they don’t have any control over their environment. If you experience photophobia, talk to your eye doctor. They will determine the best way to address the problem.6
Dry Eye and Migraines
Dry eye is a fairly common condition. In some cases, the eyes don’t produce enough tears. In others, the tears produced don’t provide enough lubrication to the eyes. Dry eye symptoms are more prevalent among older people.7
As it turns out, there may be a link between dry eye and migraines. In one study, researchers found people with migraines had more instances of dry eye. They also found that dry eye could actually play a role in making migraine attacks worse.8
A lot of trigger points can set off a migraine. Stress is one of the more common ones. When you experience stress, your brain releases adrenaline and other chemicals. These chemicals are meant to help you get through a stressful situation. But they can also trigger the process that leads to a migraine attack.
In addition, when you’re experiencing migraine pain, you may also have muscle tension. This can expand blood vessels and increase blood flow, making a migraine more severe.9
Food sensitivity can also be a trigger. Some people suffer attacks after eating chocolate or drinking alcohol. An attack can also be triggered by preservatives in foods, including:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
You’ll find nitrates in foods such as lunch meat and hot dogs. Asian foods tend to contain MSG. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in diet sodas, chewing gum, and many types of foods.11
Other Migraine Triggers
Stress, tension, and food sensitivity are just some of the potential triggers of migraines. Others include bright or flashing lights, sunlight, fatigue, and missing meals. Some people experience migraines when they’re exposed to strong perfume or smoke. Medications that dilate blood vessels can lead to migraines, as can loud noises.12
Women going through hormonal changes are also susceptible to severe migraines.13
Migraines That Affect the Eyes
Some types of migraines may not result in nausea or vomiting, severe headache, or other typical migraine symptoms. But they can do a number on your vision.
Here are a couple of examples.
An ocular migraine can cause visual disturbances. For example, it can result in the appearance of odd lines in a zigzag pattern. Sufferers may see spots of light, or have the sensation of “seeing stars.” In most instances, however, an ocular migraine won’t include head pain.
Pressure on the optic nerve during an ocular migraine can cause a temporary loss of vision. This usually clears up within an hour.14
A retinal migraine is similar to an ocular migraine. The difference is that vision disorders only happen in one eye.
You might see twinkling lights in one eye or temporary vision loss. Another difference is that retinal migraines usually lead to a headache. Head pain usually starts about an hour after visual symptoms begin.15
What is Occipital Neuralgia?
Occipital neuralgia is often confused with a migraine. But they are different conditions. Occipital neuralgia often causes pain in the back of the head. This is where the greater occipital nerve is located. The occipital nerve runs from the top of the spinal cord, through the neck, and stops at the base of the skull.
One of the more common symptoms of occipital neuralgia is stabbing pain. It usually lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes. Migraine pain, on the other hand, lasts much longer. In addition, migraine symptoms sometimes affect the eyes. Occipital neuralgia symptoms do not.16
In order to find the best way to deal with migraines, you’ll need to talk to a doctor. They’ll perform some exams to confirm you’re suffering from migraines and not something else.
Your doctor will probably want to perform a neurological exam to make sure your brain is functioning normally.
For instance, you might undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) exam.
Your doctor will also ask a lot of questions to determine the best treatment plan. For example, they might ask when your headaches usually occur and how long they last. The doctor may also want to know if you’ve experienced any personality or behavior changes.17
Addressing the Problem
If your doctor makes a migraine diagnosis, the next step is to put together a plan to help you find relief. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” way to treat migraines.
Luckily, there are treatment options available that can reduce the frequency and severity of your migraine attacks. Some people have found relief taking medications used to reduce high blood pressure. The bad news is, they don’t work for everyone.18
Can Sufferers Prevent Migraine Symptoms?
Now, there are some things you can do to find relief from a migraine attack. If you notice your symptoms starting…
- Drink water so you stay hydrated.
- Find a quiet, dark space where you can lie down.
- Put a cool cloth on your head.
- Take aspirin or another over-the-counter pain reliever.
Also, a “headache diary” could help identify your migraine trigger points. Write down when headaches occur, if you feel nauseous, and what you’re doing when an attack hits. That could help you avoid your triggers.19
Migraines can obviously be frustrating. They’re downright debilitating for some people. But just because you have migraines, that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to a life of misery.
See your doctor if you’re experiencing severe headaches. Knowing your triggers, and having an action plan in place, may help you find relief.
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