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Migraine "triggers" may not cause migraines after all

People who suffer from migraines often try to avoid potential triggers like bright or flickering lights or vigorous exercise. But, new research suggests that these events may not cause the painful and debilitating headaches.

14 kinds of headaches and how to treat them
14 kinds of headaches and how to treat them

"People with migraine with aura are told to avoid possible triggers, which may lead them to avoid a wide range of suspected factors," said study author Dr. Jes Olesen, with the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, in a press release. "Yet the most commonly reported triggers are stress, bright light, emotional influences and physical effort, which can be difficult to avoid and potentially detrimental, if people avoid all physical activity."

Migraine with aura is a migraine which normally occurs with sensory warning signs like flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your hands and face, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Aura" refers to a group of symptoms, including vision disturbances, that are a warning sign that the bad headache is coming.

A recent study showed that women who suffer from migraines with aura are at a greater risk for heart problems and blood clots.

For the study, researchers looked at 27 people who had migraines with aura who believed that bright or flickering lights, vigorous exercise or both had caused a prior episode.

They then subjected the participants to the trigger either by going on an intense run or using an exercise bike for an hour so they could reach 80 percent of their maximum heart rate. They were also exposed to bright, flashing or flickering light for 30 to 40 minutes. After each period, the subjects were monitored for three hours and asked if they had a migraine or migraine with aura.

Only 11 percent of participants said they had a migraine with aura after the light or exercise episode. Another 11 percent of people had a regular migraine.

"Our study suggests that if a person is exposed to a suspected trigger for three months and does not have a migraine attack, they no longer have to worry about avoiding that trigger," said Olesen.


Dr. Randall Berliner, a neurologist specializing in headaches at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay that the triggers may only work in specific situations. He was not involved in the study.

"Perhaps the triggers only exert their effect when the brain is already susceptible to a migraine," he said. He added that the study helps people understand the complex relationship between migraine triggers and migraines.

However, Dr. Stephen D. Silberstein, a professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University and the director of the Jefferson Headache Center who wrote an accompanying editorial, said to TIME that supposed triggers may in fact be symptoms of the migraine itself.

"You eat chocolate and you get a headache. Does that mean chocolate triggers the headache?" Silberstein explained. "What probably happens is the first symptom of your migraine attack is the desire to eat chocolate. Just like when you're pregnant, you might want pickles or ice cream. That's one end of the spectrum, where the desire to do something is part of the migraine attack, not the trigger."

The study was published online on Jan. 23 in Neurology.

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