Migraine is a very common, but very particular, type of headache. Most people who have migraine experience repeated attacks of headaches that occur over many years. The typical migraine headache is throbbing or pulsating, and often is associated with nausea and changes in vision. While many migraine headaches are severe, not all severe headaches are migraines, and some episodes can be quite mild.
Up to 20% of people in the United States will experience migraine headaches at some point in life. In about half of those, migraine headaches first appear during childhood or adolescence. Two-thirds of people who get migraines are women, probably because of the influence of hormones. Migraines also tend to run in families.
Despite years of research, scientists do not know exactly why migraines occur. The pain of migraines is associated with swelling in blood vessels and irritation of nerves that surround the brain. But most experts don’t think that this is the direct cause of migraines.
The brain doesn’t have pain receptors. But it processes pain signals from other parts of the body. It’s the pain processing networks, or centers, in the brain that are overly reactive or dysfunctional in migraine.
The brain chemical serotonin may play an important role in this process as it does in other conditions, including depression and eating disorders.
Some people with migraine have very frequent headaches, sometimes every day. This form of migraine, called chronic migraine, is difficult to treat. The newest treatment is Botox (onabotulinumtoxinA). The doctor gives multiple injections around the head and neck once every 12 weeks. It is approved for people that experience migraine headaches more than 14 days per month.
Some people can prevent migraines by avoiding triggers. Others have prevented migraines successfully through relaxation techniques, acupuncture, or exercise. However, these therapies alone don’t work for everyone. Some people also need treatment with medication to reduce the number of migraines they have. The drugs used to prevent migraines are different from drugs that to treat migraines once a migraine starts. Drugs that prevent migraines, such as gabapentin, must be taken daily.
Results from some clinical trials have shown a modest benefit from the use of gabapentin for migraine prevention. However, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), the organization that provides guidance for the use of drugs to prevent migraines, has stated that there is not enough evidence at this time to support the use of gabapentin for migraine prevention. Healthcare professionals can choose to prescribe gabapentin when other prevention therapies have not worked, however.