For reasons scientists are not at all clear on, approximately 45 million Americans suffer migraines—though for many of them, the actual headaches are so infrequent, so mild, or so far from the usual migraine pattern that neither they nor their doctors even recognize that as what is occurring, rather than an ordinary, if perhaps unusually strong, headache. A tendency to suffer migraines, particularly with aura—light sensitivity coupled with a slight visual disturbance lasting a few minutes to an hour signaling the onset of a migraine headache—seems to have a strong genetic component, but heredity is not the whole story.
The headaches are largely random, but there are often broad patterns. Sufferers are particularly prone to migraines after triggers. These triggers vary from person to person, but the common ones include onions, nitrates in cured meat, the compound tyramine in some aged or preserved foods, alcohol, secondhand smoke, and MSG. Menstruation or pregnancy can also trigger migraine headaches in some people. Caffeine withdrawal can also bring them on. Stress is also frequently a trigger, with one study finding that people with migraine going through a period of stress had over four percent more headaches. Headaches often strike when the stress goes away.
Researchers are also working to learn more about other aspects of migraine. One tool is social media. Twitter and other social media services are invaluable tools for researchers of all stripes because they provide more or less anonymous self-reports of a wide variety of human experiences, including medical conditions, and migraines are no exception. It turns out migraine headache sufferers—seeking sympathy, looking for advice, or just self-documenting—frequently share their pain on Twitter. Researchers are using this vast amount of data to glean important information about where, when, and to whom migraines happen.
This information can help in developing treatments. Some existing treatments are truly off-the-wall. One company created a headband with an electrode placed so as to stimulate the nerves found behind the eyes. Powerful magnets run over the skull—called transcranial magnetic simulation—can also be effective. Medication is also helpful, though not always with the usual delivery method. A patch that administers medicine through the skin was recently introduced, and migraine is one indication for medical marijuana.