When most people think about chronic headaches, the first thing that comes to mind is migraines. They are, without question, the best known and most widely-discussed form of chronic headaches today. However, despite this extensive awareness, the condition is still not very well understood; there is no universal cure for migraine headaches and they are thought to have hundreds–if not thousands–of known triggers, ranging from heat and humidity to auditory and visual stimuli to stress. There are also pronounced sex-based differences in the presentation of migraines, both in global incidence and the symptomology that each sex generally suffers through. While these differences are not fully understood, it is important for migraine sufferers to better understand these distinctions in order to help inform their treatment and prevention strategies.
Migraines In Men vs. Women
Studies have shown that women suffer from migraines at a rate two to three times higher than men. They also experience more severe and longer-lasting symptoms than men and suffer from higher rates of permanent disability as a result of the condition. At the onset of chronic migraines, men who suffer from this condition are generally older than women but suffer from relatively fewer headaches per month. Interestingly, while the most common migraine trigger for both men and women is stress, physical exertion is a much more common trigger in men than women and changes in the weather is a more common trigger in women than men. Finally, men are both less likely to seek care for their migraines than women, and less likely to be properly diagnosed with the condition if they do seek medical care.
Migraine Symptoms that Affect Women
During a migraine attack, statistics show that women are much more likely to suffer from sensitivity to smell than men. Women also report nausea as a symptom more often. While there is not much extant literature on the connection between migraines and olfactory senses, we do know that certain odors can trigger a migraine, regardless of sex. In fact, the smells that are most likely to trigger a migraine include perfumes and colognes, strong food smells, and cigarette smoke.
However, olfactory triggers are extremely subjective and what triggers a migraine in one woman may be a perfectly pleasant smell to another. Nausea is also a very common symptom among female sufferers, and women report suffering from nausea during a migraine attack much more often than men.
Migraine Symptoms that Affect Men
Conversely, men who suffer from migraines are much more likely to suffer from acute light sensitivity than women. While this is a common symptom for all migraine sufferers, it does appear to be more common in men than women. Men also report depression as a side effect of their migraines at a much higher rate than women and experience lower levels of pain during a migraine. Finally, men experience migraine headaches less often and for shorter periods of time than women.
Migraine Prevention and Treatment
Fortunately, despite the sex-based differences in migraine prevalence and symptomology, many of the approaches to prevention and treatment are the same for men and women. While everyone has a home-grown remedy for debilitating migraines or a cousin who swears by their secret family treatment, the prevention and treatment of migraine headaches is best left to the professionals.
Some common preventive and curative approaches include:
Rotating Medication Therapies
If you rely on one medication too long, you open yourself up to the risk of medication overuse headaches, the Catch-22 of migraines. This is what happens when you use one medication, especially triptans, too frequently: they give you more migraines! Therefore, it is best to rotate treatment modalities weekly so as to not overdo any one of them.
Since stress is one of the most common triggers of a migraine headache, taking time to relax and release stress is absolutely vital to prevention. Choose any activity that brings you pleasure and make time for it as often as possible. Whether you are hiking, reading, journaling, or just relaxing in a calm space, making an effort to care for yourself will help you prevent migraine headaches.
Understand Your Triggers
Tracking your migraine headaches to get a good idea of what triggers them can help you avoid those triggers and reduce migraine recurrence. However, it is very important to avoid “trigger anxiety,” the state in which you constantly worry about avoiding triggers to the extent that you do not enjoy life and bring unnecessary stress–which triggers migraines!–into your daily routine.
Pushing through a migraine is likely to make an attack worse and last even longer than it otherwise would. If you are experiencing a migraine attack, it is essential that you rest; take time out, relax, and focus on recovery. Allowing yourself time to rest and recuperate outside of attacks will also help you prevent them in the future.