Migraines: Identifying and avoiding triggers

Introduction

The best way to manage migraine headaches is to avoid them. By identifying and avoiding migraine triggers, you can help reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. While some triggers may be out of your control, others are easily avoidable. The following points can help you prevent a migraine:

  • Identify your migraine triggers in a headache diary(What is a PDF document?) .
  • Get regular sleep and activity.
  • Eat regularly, and do not eat foods that are likely to trigger a migraine.
  • Manage stress.
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
 

Migraines may be triggered by food, stress, and changes in your daily routine or environment.

The most common migraine triggers are:

  • Stress (either during a stressful time or right after stress subsides).
  • Menstrual cycle in women.
  • Too much or too little sleep.
  • Fasting or skipping meals.
  • Changes in barometric pressure and weather.
  • Bright light or reflected sunlight.
  • Foods such as chocolate.
  • Excessive caffeine or caffeine withdrawal.
  • Smoking or being around someone who smokes.

Other migraine triggers include:

  • Strong emotions, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Physical exercise.
  • Alcohol, such as red wine and port.
  • Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that is found in diet sodas, light yogurts, and other sugar-free foods.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a seasoning that is often found in Chinese food, meats, and other foods.
  • Nitrates, which are found in cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts.
  • Tyramines, which are found in pickled or marinated foods, aged cheeses, and yeast.
  • Birth control pills and hormone therapy.
  • Certain medications, especially those that dilate blood vessels.
  • Overuse of headache pain medications, leading to rebound headaches.
  • Bright lights, glare, reflected sunlight, or other intense visual stimuli.
  • Odors such as perfume, paint, dust, and certain flowers.

Test Your Knowledge

Skipping meals, drinking red wine, sleeping in very late, seeing reflected sunlight in your car's side-view mirror, and a rainy day could all be migraine triggers.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    A migraine trigger is anything that can lead to a headache and associated symptoms of nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Triggers vary from person to person and from headache to headache in the same person. The triggers listed are common migraine triggers in many people.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    A migraine trigger is anything that can lead to a headache and associated symptoms of nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Triggers vary from person to person and from headache to headache in the same person. The triggers listed are common migraine triggers in many people.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Keeping a headache diary can seem tedious and unnecessary. But by tracking your daily activities, what you eat and drink, and environmental factors, you may uncover a pattern to your headaches and identify easy ways to avoid future migraines. Simply put, when you know and avoid your migraine triggers, you should experience fewer migraines. This will ultimately improve your quality of life and reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks.

Test Your Knowledge

Identifying migraine triggers helps improve your quality of your life.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Identifying migraine triggers helps you avoid the trigger and reduce the number of headaches you experience. You may miss less work and school and improve the quality of your life.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Identifying migraine triggers helps you avoid the trigger and reduce the number of headaches you experience. You may miss less work and school and improve the quality of your life.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

To identify and avoid headache triggers:

  • Keep a headache diary. This may help identify migraine triggers such as foods, activities, weather conditions, and the general state of your health. If you suffer only occasional migraines, you may want to report on what you ate or drank or what the weather conditions were when a headache occurred. If you suffer from at least one headache a month, you may want to keep a daily headache diary. It may take only a few months before you can identify your migraine triggers. See an example of a headache diary(What is a PDF document?) .
  • Get regular exercise. If you do experience a migraine while exercising, write down the activity you were doing, the weather, and what you ate that day.
  • Keep regular sleep patterns. Sleeping too much or too little can trigger migraines. If you do notice that you experience a migraine when your sleep pattern has been interrupted, this may be a trigger that you are able to control.
  • Watch what you eat. Many foods, such as cheese, red wine, chocolate, and caffeine have been identified as migraine triggers. If you get a migraine, be sure to write down the foods and beverages you have eaten before the headache started.
  • Eat regularly. Fasting is a known cause of migraine attacks in many people and a trigger that you can identify and control by eating regular meals and frequent snacks.
  • Manage your stress as best you can. Many people report getting a migraine after a stressful event is over. You may not be able to control stressful events, but you may be able to control your response to those events. Relaxation exercises or biofeedback may help reduce your stress level.

There are many other migraine triggers that you will not be able to control, such as weather changes, hormonal changes (for example, during pregnancy or menstrual cycles), or seeing reflected sunlight or bright lights. However, knowing that these things trigger your migraines may help you have a treatment plan in place when you do experience these triggers. Recognizing when you have been exposed to a trigger may also allow you to begin abortive treatment at the first signs of a migraine.

Test Your Knowledge

Keeping a daily headache diary can help identify triggers such as foods, stress, interrupted sleep patterns, hormonal changes, weather changes, or medications that may be triggering your migraines.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    To identify your triggers, you need to keep a record of your migraines that includes information about things that may have led to each headache. From your headache diary, you may be able to identify all the things that might be triggering your migraines. Knowing your triggers can help you learn to avoid them, which should reduce the number of migraines you have.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    To identify your triggers, you need to keep a record of your migraines that includes information about things that may have led to each headache. From your headache diary, you may be able to identify all the things that might be triggering your migraines. Knowing your triggers can help you learn to avoid them, which should reduce the number of migraines you have.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to start identifying and avoiding migraine triggers.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to use a highlighter to mark areas or make notes in the margins of pages where you have questions.

Take your headache diary with you when you visit your doctor. Be sure to let your doctor know if you are noticing changes in your symptoms.

Talk with your doctor about what might be triggers for you. Discuss ways you can avoid those triggers.

If you would like more information that may help you to identify and avoid headache triggers, the following resources are available:

Organization

National Headache Foundation (NHF)
820 North Orleans
Suite 217
Chicago, IL  60610
Phone: 1-888-643-5552
(312) 274-2650
E-mail: info@headaches.org
Web Address: www.headaches.org
 

The National Headache Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to three major goals: educating the public that headaches are serious disorders and that sufferers need understanding and continuity of care; promoting research into potential headache causes and treatments; and serving as an information resource for sufferers, their families, and doctors who treat them. The NHF can provide lists of local doctors specializing in headache treatment. It also has a monthly newsletter and many pamphlets on a variety of topics related to the different headache syndromes.


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Last Updated: June 30, 2009

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