Healthy Living

Managing Migraines: Finding Your Headache Triggers

Dec. 18, 2014
Migraines afflict some 36 million Americans and rank on the World Health Organization's Top 10 list of most debilitating conditions. UR Medicine headache specialist Dr. Catherine LaVigne sheds light on this troubling health problem and describes some common migraine triggers.
woman holding head in pain
Migraines are a chronic brain disorder. Simply stated, people with this condition have oversensitive brains. The neurological systems responsible for regulating pain or external stimuli don’t do a good job of keeping things calm and, when triggered, can spiral out of control causing headaches, nausea, and difficulty with vision, balance, and sight.
Because migraines differ from person to person in terms of frequency, severity, cause, and responsiveness to treatment, people often go undiagnosed for years. Even after a diagnosis, migraine sufferers may struggle to find the most effective treatment, which can range from over-the-counter painkillers, to more powerful drugs, or even surgery.
One key to controlling migraines is to understand what stimuli will “light the fuse.” This means paying attention and tracking migraine episodes—often in the form of a headache diary—in order to see patterns and ultimately avoid common triggers.
Headache triggers may include:
  • Light: Light from various sources, including bright sunshine, flickering or broken sunlight (e.g., through the leaves on a tree), fluorescent lighting, or the light from a television, computer, or movie screen.
  • Food: Items like aged cheeses, salty foods, and processed foods; food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates; skipping meals or fasting.
  • Alcohol: Particularly red wines that contain tannins.  
  • Sleep: Too much or too little, or sleep disruptions such as jet lag.
  • Smells: Strong scents from paints, perfumes, and certain types of flowers. 
  • Stress: Both increases and decreases in stress levels, such as the weekend following a difficult stretch at work.
  • Weather: Changes in barometric pressure, brought about by fluctuating temperature or altitude.
  • Hormones: Variations in estrogen levels in women, such as before or during periods, pregnancy, or menopause.

If headaches are a problem for you, talk with your doctor about their frequency and severity. He or she can work with you to create a plan to identify triggers and explore treatment options. People with difficulty controlling their migraines should see a specialist.

If you need help finding a doctor, click here or call (585) 784-8891.

 Catherine LaVigne, MD
Catherine LaVigne, MD, is an associate professor of Neurology and director of the UR Medicine Headache Center.