Is Your Headache a Migraine?

Migraine – even the word can strike fear in the nearly 12 percent of Americans who the National Institutes of Health reports suffer from them. These people know the throbbing, one-sided pain that makes them sensitive to light and noise and that causes nausea or vomiting. Some even lose their vision temporarily.

Yet many others have experienced these classic migraine symptoms and have blamed them on tension headaches, caused by the tightening of muscles around the face and neck, or sinus headaches, which may occur from sinus irritation caused by allergies or an infection.

Undiagnosed Migraines

The Migraine Research Foundation estimates that while the 12 percent – or 36 million Americans – have diagnosed migraines, nearly half of migraines go undiagnosed.

“Many people self diagnose and treat their headaches with over-the-counter pain medications,” said Natalie Sanchez, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. “It is not until headaches become chronic or debilitating that those sufferers seek treatment from either the ER or their primary care doctor. It is our job to help distinguish and diagnose the type of headache patients are having and the next best steps for them.”

So when patients complain of headaches, Dr. Sanchez asks them about their symptoms, how often they experience headaches and any triggers they have noticed.

Migraine Symptoms

“Classic migraines involve moderate to severe pain on one side of the head and often are accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound,” she said. “They may also cause nausea and vomiting.” She also notes that some migraine sufferers’ pain is preceded by an aura, in which they experience flashes of light, blurry vision or temporary loss of sight.

If experienced a few times a year, migraines may be tolerable for most people. But, when they happen more frequently, Dr. Sanchez says preventive measures and treatment are necessary.

Chronic Migraines

“Chronic migraines are those that last several days at a time and occur more than a couple months a year,” she explained. “These often affect a person’s quality of life. When that happens, I recommend patients see a neurologist for proper diagnosis and preventive treatment.”

Preventing Migraines

Unlike tension and sinus headaches that have clear causes, migraines are different. Studies have identified common triggers of migraines, such as menstruation, caffeine, sleep deprivation and hunger. When Dr. Sanchez suspects migraines, she recommends that her patients keep a diary of foods, activities and environmental factors that are present when a headache begins to pinpoint its potential trigger.

“Once patients know what factors may lead to their migraines, removing those triggers can help prevent the onset,” she said. “That’s the first step to managing migraines.” Also, some medications on the market are taken daily to help curb the onset of migraines.


If prevention doesn’t work, doctors may recommend medications that help treat the pain of a migraine at the first sign of an attack. Dr. Sanchez says these may include over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or prescription triptans. She warns, though, that these medications often have side effects, so it’s important to follow doctors’ instructions.

Other treatments that have offered relief for chronic migraine sufferers include acupuncture and Botox injections, which block nerve signals in the brain, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Sanchez suggests that anyone who suffers from recurring headaches talk to his or her doctor about the possibility of migraines.

“Migraines can be very debilitating but don’t have to be,” she said. “With what we know and the treatments available, we’ve seen patients manage their migraines and get a new lease on their lives.”

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Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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