Who Gets Them?
An estimated 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraines, and an astounding 80 percent of those are women. MAGNUM, a national migraine awareness and education group, reports that, "Approximately 1 in 5 women gets migraines, while only 1 in 16 men get migraines." Dr. Steven Singer, founder of Neurological Associates of Washington and the Northwest Headache Clinic in Kirkland, Washington, puts it bluntly, "Men are a blip on the mountain of migraines."
People with parents who had migraines have a 50 percent higher likelihood of succumbing to them, so genetics certainly play a role in this disease. Interestingly, the number of young boys and girls who are treated for migraines is nearly equal until puberty, but once girls reach menarche (the first menstrual period), the frequency in migraines rises dramatically for women and subsequently drops significantly after menopause.
What Causes Migraines?
While the precise cause of migraines isn't completely understood, doctors do know that the nerve endings in the brain are overexcited and inflamed during attacks; that's why most migraine specialists are neurologists—physicians who specialize in the nervous system. What they do know is that most of these episodes are brought on by triggers that include sudden changes in the weather, fluorescent lights, caffeine, stress, alcohol, and menstruation. Migraine triggers are unique to each patient, and many people react to a combination of them.
While sufferers who know that their disease is triggered by foods containing MSG, caffeine, or aspartame can take steps to avoid these chemicals, many patients are stricken by migraines by forces beyond their control. The National Headache Foundation recently surveyed 305 migraine sufferers and discovered that 85 percent of them cited environmental causes as a trigger. In fact, Germany has a toll-free hotline that migraineurs can call to determine if approaching weather patterns put them at risk for an attack.