Asger Hee Stjernholm, MSc

What Is Chronic Migraine?

Migraines can be a huge disruption to your life, no doubt about it.

If you have recently been diagnosed with (or believe you may have) chronic migraine, you probably have a lot of questions about what is causing your migraines, what treatments are available, and what your long-term prognosis might be.

And while being diagnosed with chronic migraine can feel like terrible news, you should try not to lose hope.

New, breakthrough treatments are frequently becoming available to help patients combat their chronic migraine. Most importantly, these coping mechanisms are enabling patients to live as normal and fulfilling a life as possible despite their condition.

What is chronic migraine?

Chronic migraine is a condition that affects around 2% of the global population. This might seem like a tiny percentage, but if you suffer with chronic migraine you should know that you are not alone!

In fact, it’s estimated that 4 million people in the United States suffer from chronic migraines just like yours. And a further 30+ million Americans are diagnosed with other migraine types.

So what is it that separates chronic migraine from other migraines?

According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines can be classified as chronic if:

  • Headaches occur more than fifteen days per month, over a three month period.
  • And more than eight of those headaches are migraines.
  • This means that people who suffer from chronic migraines will have a migraine or headache more often than not.

Despite the frequency of attacks, some medical professionals believe that chronic migraine is actually underdiagnosed.

This could be due to patients reporting only their very worst headaches — those that might have made them miss full days at work, for example. In doing so, they fail to report other, serious headaches, which weren’t as inconvenient but still qualify them to be ‘chronic’ sufferers.

If you have yet to talk to your doctor or be diagnosed with chronic migraine, be sure to track and record any headaches you experience. Pay particular attention to those you feel are severe enough to impact your daily life or meet any of the symptoms in the section below.

Chronic migraine symptoms

Chronic migraine symptoms are similar to that of episodic migraine, they just happen more frequently (as stated above).

Chronic migraine symptoms can include:

  • Severe throbbing pain on one side of your head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity (sometimes painful) to bright lights, sounds, touch, and smells

For many chronic migraine sufferers, these symptoms can bring life to a halt. They often lead to issues such as missing work, family events, and other enjoyable activities or important responsibilities. In fact, movement usually makes the symptoms feel worse — so lying down and resting is often a patient’s only option.

The diagnosis is not taken lightly by the medical world either. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized the impact of chronic migraine on patients who have been diagnosed. They have categorized it in the same level of disability as dementia and quadriplegia.

What causes chronic migraine?

Unfortunately, there is currently no known cause for why some patients experience chronic migraine. The condition continues to be studied in-depth but is yet to be completely understood.

The medical world does have a few theories, though. For instance, some experts speculate that chronic migraine may be caused by vascular irregularities, genetics, or a neurological condition.

Medical science has also found an association with some particular triggers. These include bright lights, caffeine, overstimulation, lack of sleep, and unbalanced hormones. However, the triggers seem to vary from individual to individual and are not proven to be an official cause.

The good news is, studies on chronic migraine continue and the medical community remains hopeful for greater insight very soon.

What type of chronic migraine treatments are available?

Medication is currently the most common treatment for migraine.

Medication types mostly include triptans and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as well as OTC pain killers. However, because the pain can be so severe, it’s believed that many chronic migraine sufferers are overusing their medication, causing overuse headaches and worsening conditions.

Medication overuse can occur if you use acute pain-relief medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, more than two or three times a week, or more than 10 days out of the month. So if you’re suffering from chronic migraines, and using medication to treat your pain, overuse is certainly something to watch out for.

In severe cases a migraine prophylaxis can be considered. Available options are botox, antidepressants, beta blockers and anti seizure medication as well as the relatively new CGRP antibodies.

Lifestyle changes may also be recommended by your doctor if you’ve been diagnosed with chronic migraine and have been able to identify certain triggers. For example, you may need to cut out caffeinated beverages, try to reduce stress, exercise more, or avoid bright lighting.

These changes will be unique to you and your triggers, and may or may not reduce the number or severity of your chronic migraines.

Lastly, while very little research has been done specifically in connection to chronic migraine, some people find alternative treatments such as massage or acupuncture to offer relief as well.

The long-term prognosis for chronic migraine sufferers

Whether your migraines are a new experience, or you’ve been living with chronic migraine for years, it’s important to have hope.

If you can be proactive and develop a strong knowledge of what chronic migraine actually is, you’ve got a great chance of determining a good treatment plan to combat it.

This will hopefully empower you to reduce the number of headaches you are currently experiencing, and perhaps even lessen their severity, too.

Lastly, it’s important to give yourself the space you need to process your diagnosis and tailor a specific treatment plan to meet your lifestyle. Living with chronic migraine is no easy feat, but there are ways to make it more manageable. If you’re not a fan of taking frequent medications, talk to your doctor about possible lifestyle changes, and/or alternative therapy options instead.

If you have yet to be diagnosed or are an episodic migraine sufferer who is noticing an increase in the number or severity of your migraines, be sure to listen to your body. Keep track of what might be sparking your migraines and bring your concerns to your doctor, neurologist, or headache specialist.

Remember, you can always head over to our blog for more migraine management tips — we can’t do everything to alleviate your symptoms, but we are certainly here to help where we can.

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