Under the Hood

Migraine Science 2016: Will Doctors And Patients Soon Be Able To Predict Chronic Headaches?

For some people suffering a migraine, it can seem like the world is ending. The throbbing pain, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and extreme sensitivity to lights and sound can be debilitating for hours or days. But despite the existence of some prevention medications, some of which are also used to prevent epileptic seizures and depression, medical experts have yet to land on absolute ways of predicting a migraine attack, making prevention — and thus relief — elusive for many.

Catching a migraine as early as possible is important. According to the National Institutes of Health, once a headache begins, treatments like aspirin and ergotamines, which change blood flow patterns, are more effective the sooner they are administered. And giving migraines a longer leash can have long-term consequences: “Evidence shows an increased sensitivity after each successive attack, eventually leading to chronic daily migraine in some individuals.”

An MRI study in Neurology also found that migraines in the long-term can change the brain’s structure. Dr. Richard Lipton, a lead neurologist at the Montefiore Headache Center and co-author of the study, told Fox News that he “was particularly struck. We looked at three types of structural brain changes, and we found changes in all three that were statistically significant for people with migraine with aura.”

Aura refers to sensory disturbances that migraines cause, particularly in vision.

Catching the headaches before they start could be crucial for some of the millions of sufferers. To predict when migraines are going to hit, many people log their “triggers,” things in their lives that could bring on the intense headaches. Those triggers could be as obvious as caffeine intake or sleep deprivation or as subtle as hormonal changes or a drop in barometric pressure outside. A few mobile phone applications are trying to enhance that practice by adding technology to predict when a migraine will strike.

lightning-962789_1920 For some sufferers, the pain from a migraine can feel like a lightning strike inside the brain. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

One of those apps is Curelator Headache, in which people with chronic headaches can list their own triggers and rank them by how important they are in the onset of their migraines. The Wall Street Journal reported the app may even correct people on what are actually their individual triggers — “In a Curelator-funded study of 254 app users ... only 18 percent of the factors the migraine sufferers blamed for bringing on their attacks actually were triggers.”

Migraine Buddy, another app, operates in a similar fashion, while MigraineX tells its users when to expect weather changes that commonly trigger migraines.

Service dogs have been known to sniff out early signs of an incoming migraine, which could give some hope that doctors will soon be able to more precisely predict the episodes using individual body data. Several hours before migraines occur, most people experience bodily and behavioral changes such as “yawning, frequent urination, food cravings, mood changes, and neck pain,” according to Psychology Today. Dogs can be sensitive to such changes, much in the same way they can sense impending seizures in epileptics or low blood sugar in diabetics.

Researchers aren’t there just yet, but they’re on their way. One study published in Sensors used sensors to capture information on heart rate, amount of oxygen in the blood, skin temperature and electrical activity in the skin. The authors wrote they could predict migraines an average of 47 minutes before onset.

But for now, widespread methods for predicting a migraine are still around the corner.

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