How to spot when a headache is actually a migraine

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Six million people in the UK are thought to suffer from migraine attacks – could you be one of them?

People often think a migraine is just a painful headache. But while a throbbing pain in the head is often a feature of a migraine attack, there are usually other symptoms.

This week is Migraine Awareness Week and it is estimated that 190,000 migraine attacks will take place every day in England alone. But what makes a migraine different from a common or garden headache and how can you relieve the symptoms?

Migraine attacks affect people differently so it is hard to describe a typical episode. They can last anything from four hours to 72 hours or, in some cases, even longer.

A migraine attack will usually include a moderate to severe throbbing pain affecting the head. In addition, migraine sufferers may be sick or feel nauseous, feel extremely sensitive to light and noise and lack energy.

When a migraine attack is on its way, many people will feel tired and thirsty and have a stiff neck. They may also crave sweet foods and experience a change in mood.

For some people, a migraine will start with a set of neurological symptoms referred to as the aura of a migraine. This can include seeing shapes like spots, sparkles or zigzags, feeling numb, weak or dizzy and experiencing issues with speech and hearing.

Some people will feel frightened or confused at this stage, which can last up to an hour and often occurs before the headache starts.

What can you do once a migraine starts?

Sleep can help relieve the symptoms for a lot of sufferers and many people will find that if they manage to nap, even just for a couple of hours, this is enough to bring the attack to an end. If sleep isn’t possible, simply relaxing can also be helpful.

Get comfortable on your favourite sofa or chair and practice some deep breathing exercises. Make sure the room is quiet and free from distractions and try to dismiss any worrying thoughts as soon as they occur.

Slow your breathing down by counting to five as you inhale and then doing the same as you exhale. This should help your body to relax and help release tension.

Try closing your eyes and imagine the tension leaving your body and healing oxygen entering your body and filling your lungs. Roll your shoulders backwards and forwards and slowly rotate your head several times – unless any of these movements are painful.

You may also find using heat pads or hot water bottles or taking a warm shower or bath may help relax your muscles and relieve some of your symptoms.

If you suffer from migraine attacks regularly, make sure you speak to your doctor as you may need medication which is not available over the counter.