Migraine is a very complex genetic neurological disorder and most people who live with it don’t really understand it. A lot of what we ‘know’ about migraine has also changed dramatically in recent years, meaning that what your doctors think and know about migraine is possibly out of date. If you have recently been diagnosed for the first time or were diagnosed a very long time ago but never really understood it, this is a great place to start your migraine education.
What is migraine?
At the most basic level, migraine is type of sensory processing disorder caused by having a hyper-reactive brain. You were born with slightly different genes that makes your brain work faster, react faster, and sometimes over-react when it is exposed to too much stimulation. This over-reaction is called a migraine attack.
Research has found that the ions in the channels of a migraine brain move faster than other people, and that there are more shortcuts in a migraine brain than other people. You may not have noticed, but most people with migraine do something a bit faster than others: do you talk fast? Can you solve puzzles fast? Perhaps you learn new skills easily, or are very adaptable and resilient? That’s all thanks to your migraine brain.
If you think of your brain like an engine, the migraine brain has been modified to work faster. Push it too hard and it overheats, just like any engine - but because our brains are already wired to run hot, they overheat often. We can manage it through lifestyle modifications, which reduces our exposure to triggers and generally controls the stimulation our brains are exposed to, and by using medications that work to calm the overheating brain or stop it from overheating in the first place.
Everyone with migraine has their own experience of the disorder. There are many different types of migraine, a number of which do not have significant headache as a symptom. We each have our own unique combination of symptoms. We each respond to treatments differently. And we each have our own list of things that are more likely to set off a migraine attack, which are called triggers.
Read more about the different types of migraine
Read more about migraine triggers
To make things a bit more complex, what will trigger attacks and the symptoms you get during attacks will change over time. Migraine is a spectrum disorder, with some people completely disabled, some are significantly affected, and others only experiencing mild symptoms. And as is the case with most spectrum disorders, you should expect to move up and down the spectrum throughout your life.
Migraine is a primary disorder: it is not a symptom of something else. If you are unsure of your diagnosis you should ask for a referral to a neurologist to confirm that you have migraine and shouldn’t be looking for anything else. Watch this video from our friends at the Association of Migraine Disorders to learn more about what physically is happening in migraine.