How a Migraine Happens
Theories about migraine pain
Older theories about migraines suggested that symptoms were possibly due to fluctuations
in blood flow to the brain. Now many headache researchers realize that changes in
blood flow and blood vessels do not initiate the pain, but may contribute to it.
Current thinking regarding migraine pain has moved more toward the source of the problem,
as improved technology and research have paved the way for a better understanding.
Today, it is widely understood that chemical compounds and hormones, such as serotonin
and estrogen, often play a role in pain sensitivity for migraine sufferers.
One aspect of migraine pain theory explains that migraine pain happens due to waves
of activity by groups of excitable brain cells. These trigger chemicals, such as serotonin,
to narrow blood vessels. Serotonin is a chemical necessary for communication between
nerve cells. It can cause narrowing of blood vessels throughout the body.
When serotonin or estrogen levels change, the result for some is a migraine. Serotonin
levels may affect both sexes, while fluctuating estrogen levels affect women only.
For women, estrogen levels naturally vary over the life cycle, with increases during
fertile years and decreases afterwards. Women of childbearing age also experience
monthly changes in estrogen levels. Migraines in women are often associated with these
fluctuating hormone levels and may explain why women are more likely to have migraines
Some research suggests that when estrogen levels rise and then fall, contractions
in blood vessels may be set off. This leads to throbbing pain. Other data suggest
that lower levels of estrogen make facial and scalp nerves more sensitive to pain.
What commonly triggers a migraine?
People who get migraines may be able to identify triggers that seem to kick off the
symptoms. Some possible triggers include the following:
Stress and other emotions
Biological and environmental conditions, such as hormonal shifts or exposure to light
Fatigue and changes in one's sleep pattern
Glaring or flickering lights
Certain foods and drinks
The American Headache Society suggests documenting triggers in a headache diary. Taking
this information with you when you visit your healthcare provider helps him or her
to identify headache management strategies.