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Q&A: 6 basics about migraine headaches

Get to know more about a condition that affects an estimated 36 million Americans, and is more common in women than men.

Relpax is one example of a prescription medicine used to treat acute migraine headaches. It is not a preventive drug.
Relpax is one example of a prescription medicine used to treat acute migraine headaches. It is not a preventive drug.Read moreAlyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune

Shirley Kessel, who shared her personal experience with hereditary migraine here, is executive director of Miles for Migraine, which raises funds and awareness about the condition. Here are some basics from her group's website:

What is migraine?

More than just a headache, it is an inheritable neurological disorder that affects how the brain processes pain, light, sound, and smell. Attacks can last hours to days; for some, it is continuous. Accompanying symptoms can include visual changes, dizziness or vertigo, numbness, weakness, or difficulty speaking.

What causes migraine?

The cause is unknown, though it tends to run in families. Triggers can bring on an attack, but they aren't the underlying cause.

How common is it?

There are an estimated 39 million American men, women, and children with migraine. It is more common in women than men.

How do I know if I have migraines or just severe headaches?

There is no confirming test, but your doctor can usually diagnose you by examining you and asking about symptoms, family history, and possibly ordering tests to rule out other conditions.

Where do I get care for my migraines?

Start with your primary care physician or internist. You may be referred to a neurologist if more specialty care is needed.

What are the most common treatments?

Avoiding triggers, using over-the-counter pain medication, and complementary therapies or behavioral treatments (meditation, stress reduction, biofeedback, guided imagery) are enough for some people. For more severe or frequent migraines, there are acute medicines for immediate pain and symptom relief, such as prescription triptans and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (naproxen, ibuprofen, diclofenac). These should be limited to avoid headaches worsening over time. Preventive medicines are taken daily to reduce frequency and intensity of headaches.