The Big Question: What is migraine, and does the latest research point to an early cure?

Why are we asking this now?

New research has shed light on why migraine sufferers are often sensitive to light. Specialised nerve cells in the eye appear to trigger migraine headaches even in people who are registered blind.

Scientists identified specialised, light-sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. They are involved in sending signals to the brain via the optic nerve and appear to be involved in "photophobia", when people react badly to light. Although still at an early stage, it is hoped that the research into these light-sensitive cells, called melanopsin photoreceptors, may lead to new ways of treating migraine attacks.



What is migraine?

It is more than just a splitting headache. A migraine attack involves a pulsing or throbbing pain in an area of the head, often on one side but not always the same side, and can be accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting. The attacks can last for between four and 24 hours, although 72-hour attacks are not unknown. They are extremely debilitating. Normal, over-the-counter painkillers may not always be effective, especially if they are taken when the migraine attack has already started.

Classic migraine, now known as migraine with aura, involves some kind of visual disturbance, such as flashing lights, blind spots, tunnel vision, zig-zag lines or even temporary blindness. Common migraine, or migraine without aura, does not involve visual disturbances but often results in photophobia and increased sensitivity to noise, sounds and even smells.



Is migraine common?

It is thought that everyone has the capacity to suffer from migraine but in practice between 10 and 15 per cent of people have increased susceptibility – about 8 million sufferers in Britain. Migraine is about three or four times more common in women than in men. It affects all social classes and can strike children as well as adults, although attacks appear to become less frequent as a sufferer gets older.

Migraine attacks cost the UK economy between £1bn and £3.5bn a year, mostly in lost work, with 190,000 people a day suffering a debilitating attack. The World Health Organisation has classified migraine headache as a major health disorder and has rated migraine as one of the 20 most disabling lifetime conditions.

The frequency of attacks varies greatly from person to person, and from one time of a person's life to another. On average, people experience about 13 attacks per year, but in some cases people can suffer from three or four attacks a week, while other people may have just one or two a year.



What causes migraine?

There is no simple explanation for why someone suffers from migraine because the exact causes are not understood. However, scientists believe that migraine is influenced by changes in the level of serotonin (also known as 5-HT), a neurotransmitter in the brain. When these levels change, it results in an inflammation that causes blood vessels in the brain to swell and press on nearby nerves, causing pain. More precisely, migraine is believed to be due to expansion of the cranial blood vessels and the release of pro-inflammatory neuropeptides through nerve endings in the trigeminal nerve system, the nerve responsible for sensation in the face. The involvement of the trigeminal nerve may explain why many migraine sufferers become sensitive to anything touching the face or head: shaving or combing the hair can be painful and unpleasant.



What triggers migraine?

Many things appear to trigger a migraine attack, and they can vary from person to person. The sort of things that people have reported as triggers for migraine include: sleep (either too much or too little), skipped meals, bright lights, strong smells, noises, hormone changes due to the menstrual cycle, stress and anxiety, weather changes, alcohol (particularly red wine), caffeine (either too much or none at all), certain kinds of food (cheese, hot dogs or chocolate) and even artificial sweeteners.

Of all these many kinds of triggers, those that appear to be the underlying factors for many migraine sufferers are low blood sugar due to irregular eating, erratic sleeping patterns, dehydration, stress and hormonal changes linked with the menstrual cycle.

Can migraine be treated?

There are two forms of treatment. The first is to try to prevent an attack by prophylaxis, often using medicines designed for other conditions, for example using antidepressants such as amitiptyline and venlafacine or beta-blockers such as propranolol and timolol. These are taken on a long-term, daily basis to minimise the risk of an attack.

The second form of treatment is to take drugs designed to relieve the pain. Some over-the-counter painkillers can work if taken early enough, but many migraine sufferers needed something different or stronger and there is a danger of "rebound" headaches if painkillers are taken too often.

Two classes of prescription drugs are commonly used to treat migraine attacks: the triptans (such as zolmitriptan and sumatriptan), which work by trying to balance levels of serotonin in the brain, and the ergot derivatives, which work in a similar way to the triptans but can have quite serious side effects.

The antimigraine activity of the triptans is probably due to them acting in a similar way to serotonin on the 5-HT receptors in the intracranial blood vessels and nerves of the trigeminal system, which result in cranial vessel constriction and inhibition of the release of pro-inflammatory neuropeptides. Like all anti-migraine drugs, however, the triptans have to be taken early on in an attack. The longer a patient waits, the greater the chances of the drug failing to relieve the symptoms.



Is there anything else a migraineur can do?

Charities such as Migraine Action ( www.migraine.org.uk) and Migraine Trust ( www.migrainetrust.org) recommend that people keep detailed diaries for a few months to document their attacks. This helps to identify the sort of factors that may act as a trigger, which can then be used to avoid further attacks. Managing lifestyle is seen as an effective way of preventing or limiting the number of attacks.

In addition, there are other simple measures that can have an impact. Going to bed and getting up at regular times, and keeping to regular, healthy meals both appear to help many sufferers. Regular exercise, drinking water and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine in coffee and tea can also help. Reducing or managing stress can also prevent migraine attacks. Some people also report benefits from regular acupuncture sessions.



Where do we go from here?

Migraine experts such as Andy Dowson, director of headache services at King's College London, believe that the latest study on photo-sensitive cells in the eye may provide a concrete target for developing new kinds of migraine drugs. Since the triptans were developed some 20 years ago, there has been something of a hiatus in drug development, but the new research gives hope that eventually science will come up with some better treatments for this debilitating condition.

Will new treatments prove more successful at combating migraine?

Yes

*Identifying how light-sensitive cells in the brain cause migraine can help better target cures



*Painkillers used in the past can have serious side effects, of which new drugs could steer clear



*Recent research shows how migraine can be caused by a variety of factors, rather than one specifically

No

*Development of new drugs has been disappointing since the advent of triptans 20 years ago



*The most effective cures may still be simple lifestyle changes rather than different drugs



*Recent breakthroughs are welcome, but scientists are yet to harness them into sophisticated treatment

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker