Can we use associations between migraine triggers, premonitory symptoms, and migraine attacks to predict our attacks and decrease their frequency?
"The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it." -Helen Keller
For many of us with migraine, our world revolves around painful and debilitating attacks. Addressing this issue, the authors of two recent journal articles have drawn attention to how, if knowledge and understanding of relationships between trigger factors, protective factors, and premonitory features can be established, we may be able to improve our ability to predict, preempt, and reduce the frequency of these acute episodes (Lipton et al., 2014, and Pavlovic et al., 2014).
In this article, we use these journal articles, and the definitions provided within them, to guide us in a discussion of:
- trigger factors,
- protective factors,
- premonitory features,
- self-prediction, and
- preemptive therapy.
Before we get to trigger factors, let's review a bit about migraine. Migraine is a neurological disease. As migraineurs, we are thought to have an inherited sensitivity of the nervous system that makes our brains hyper-excitable. This hyper-excitability gives us a predisposition to migraine attacks.
Attacks, including headaches and other symptoms, are referred to as the ictal state. The goal of treatment in the ictal state is to relieve pain and restore function. The time between attacks, where we may be relatively free of symptoms but have a predisposition to attacks, is referred to as the inter-ictal state. The goal of treatment in the inter-ictal state is to reduce the probability of transitioning to the ictal state.
Now, let's examine trigger factors. Triggers are internal or external stimuli that provoke or "set off" migraine attacks in those of us who have the disease. It is important for us to know that triggers do not cause our symptoms. "During a migraine attack, a storm of electrical and chemical activity 'switches on' different areas of our brain and surrounding nerves to cause migraine symptoms" (Dr. Andrew Charles, AHS14AZ).
As well, we need to be aware that triggers are different from risk factors. Risk factors like genetics, sex, and obesity, increase the onset of the disease in a person previously free of migraine.
That said, Lipton et al., (2014), define trigger factors as measurable endogenous (internal) or exogenous (external) events (exposures) associated with an increased probability of an attack over a brief period of time.
Endogenous trigger factors include:
- altered sleep patterns.
- hormonal changes like estrogen withdrawal.
- psychological factors such as stress or relaxation following stress.
Exogenous trigger factors include:
- environmental factors like weather changes, bright or flickering lights, loud noises, and strong odors.
- dietary factors.
- exposure to, or withdrawal from, certain medications.
To help us understand how these triggers can increase the probability of an attack over a brief period of time, let's take a look at observations from a 28-day study of 33 patients with chronic migraine and 22 patients with chronic tension-type headache. The objective was to evaluate the time-series relationships between stress, sleep duration, and headache pain (Houle et al., 2012, cited in Spierings et al., 2014).
Observations for the stress-headache relationship are:
- High stress yesterday and today predicts very high headache activity today.
- Low stress yesterday and today predicts low headache activity today.
- Low stress yesterday and high stress today also predicts low headache activity today.
- High stress yesterday and low stress today predicts high headache activity today.
The conclusion is that headache precipitation needs at least 2 consecutive days of stress and that it is more likely to occur during let-down stress. Let-down stress was confirmed in a study by Lipton et al., (2014).
Observations for sleep duration and headache are:
- Low sleep duration (<4 hours) yesterday and today predicts very high headache activity today.
- Low sleep duration yesterday and high sleep duration today also predicts high headache activity today.
- Approximately 8 hours of sleep on consecutive days predicts low headache activity today.
The conclusion is that headache precipitation needs at least 2 consecutive days of sleep deprivation and that headache is likely to occur with oversleeping.
Observations for stress and sleep duration are:
- Low stress and low sleep duration are associated with the lowest headache activity today.
- High stress and high sleep duration are associated with the most headache activity today.
While trigger factors increase the probability of a migraine attack, protective factors are events that decrease the probability of attacks over a defined period of time (Lipton et al., 2014). Keeping the above observations in mind, the protective factors would be low stress and high quality sleep (8 hours). Other examples include: eating regular meals, practicing relaxation techniques, and preventive medications. Also, we should be aware that things which make us feel better can decrease the length and severity of our symptoms. Examples include: cold packs, sleep, and for some, Essential Oils and aromatherapy .
Premonitory features (Prodrome)
Premonitory features are defined as subjective cognitive, behavioral, or physical features that precede the onset of aura in migraine with aura, and before the onset of pain in migraine without aura (Lipton et al., 2014, and Pavlovic et al., 2014). These symptoms may begin within 2-48 hours (some suggest 72 hours as symptoms may develop slowly) of aura or headache onset. Premonitory symptoms may include:
- fatigue (feeling tired, weary),
- difficulty concentrating, thinking, reading, and writing,
- irritability (mood changes),
- stiff neck,
- neck pain,
- light sensitivity,
- blurred vision,
- noise sensitivity,
- sensitive skin,
- food cravings,
- frequent urination,
- thirst, and
- lots of energy.
About one third of patients with migraine seen in headache centers have premonitory symptoms (Lipton et al., 2014). For those of us who have premonitory symptoms (prodrome), it is interesting to note that in a study of 893 patients (Kelman, 2004), where one third of the participants had prodrome symptoms, the most common symptoms were tiredness, mood changes, and gastrointestinal symptoms. As well, results showed patients with prodrome differed from patients without prodrome in having more triggers, longer duration of aura and longer time between aura and headache; more aura with no headache; longer time to peak headache and to respond to triptan; longer duration of headache; more headache associated nausea, running of nose and tearing of eyes; and, more and longer duration of postdrome (resolution phase).
Self-prediction refers to our assessment of the probability that we will have a migraine attack over a defined period of time (Lipton et al., 2014). To predict our attacks we need to be familiar with our trigger factors and premonitory symptoms and be able to associate them with headache onset. Finding these associations can be challenging.
Let's take a look at some of the challenges we may face:
To begin with, because most of the literature regarding migraine triggers consists of studies performed using patient interviews and surveys, the results may be subject to recall bias and selection bias. With a lack of sound scientific evidence to support our beliefs that a certain trigger initiates an attack, a number of our triggers come under scrutiny.
For example, many people claim they are 'better than the weatherman" in predicting the weather. However, several studies suggest that our perception of weather as a trigger may be overestimated (Friedman and De Ver Dye, 2009). This appears to be true for a number of other environmental influences, such as indoor and outdoor lighting, poor air quality, noise, and exposure to strong odors and chemicals (including those in foods and beverages), even though we are believed to be more sensitive to various environmental stimuli than individuals without migraine.
Unique to the individual
While specific triggers may be controversial, a vast number of studies show we have a wide range of these precipitating factors. In one of the largest studies to date, when asked, about triggers, 76% of 1750 individuals with ICHD-2 diagnosis of migraine reported triggers. When presented with a list of triggers to choose from, this figure rose to 95% (Kelman, 2007, cited in Pavlovic et al., 2014)). The most common triggers, occurring at least occasionally, were:
- stress (80%),
- hormones (65% of women),
- missed meals (57%),
- weather (53%0,
- sleep disturbances (50%),
- odors (44%).
- alcohol (38%),
- heat (30%), and
- foods (27%).
In the Kelman study, we need to know that those of us with triggers were shown to have more severe attacks and symptoms, higher recurrence rates, more associated sleep and mood disturbances, longer lifetime duration of migraine, and more family members with migraine. In addition, migraine with aura and chronic migraine were more frequently associated with triggers than migraine without aura and episodic migraine.
In this instance we need to know if a specific trigger is always followed by an attack. In a study of 120 patients with migraine or tension-type headache (Wober et al., 2006, cited in Spierings et al., 2014), participants were asked if triggers brought on their headaches always (consistently), or sometimes (occasionally). Of the fifteen most common triggers acknowledged (menstruation, weather, stress, red wine, smoking, hunger, alcohol, skipping meals, noise, change in sleep habits, glare, relaxation after stress, exhaustion, odors, and physical activity), only menstruation was statistically significant as a constant rather than occasional trigger.
This brings us to the inference that single triggers (apart from menses) might not be consistently potent enough to initiate an attack and therefore it may take a combination of triggers (additive effect). For example, we discussed the relationship between sleep and stress. Other examples include stress and hunger, (Turner et al., 2013), and combinations of chemicals in foods and beverages, such as tannin, tyramine, and MSG.
Here, those of us with premonitory symptoms need to know that, in this phase, we may mistakenly identify triggers or confuse them with premonitory symptoms. For example, many of us believe chocolate is a trigger for our attacks. However, consider hormonal migraines. Declining estrogen levels that occur at the time of menstruation as well as low levels that are encountered during the menopausal transition are migraine triggers for some women. Low estrogen levels are associated with low serotonin levels. Low serotonin levels promote food cravings for starches and sugars, including chocolate. If we regularly eat chocolate during these times, we may be experiencing a chocolate craving as a premonitory feature, not a trigger factor.
Fatigue (exhaustion) is another confusing factor. Feeling tired or weary is recognized as a trigger, a premonitory symptom, and a feeling of exhaustion that persists through an attack and hangs on for days. Extreme fatigue may be a symptom of chronic stress.
The way to find a needle in a haystack is to sit down -Beryl Markham
To help us make associations between triggers, premonitory symptoms, and attacks, which can be like trying to find "needles in a haystack", we are encouraged to keep diaries. In other words we need to "sit down" and record a large amount of data.
If we are using paper diaries, our recall ability, combined with the chore of flipping through pages to try and figure things out, may make us frustrated, especially if our attacks are high frequency or chronic. Hence, we may give up.
In my case, I opted out of paper diaries and journals and initially used a bank calendar, then my Day-Timer (a monthly calendar I could see at a glance). Appointments, work commitments, social obligations, family responsibilities, etc. were already scheduled in. All I had to do was make a note of perceived triggers, including, stress, what I ate or drank, environmental influences like weather, noise and light, hormonal influences, sleep patterns, and premonitory symptoms, along with medications, protective factors and comfort measures that helped me find relief.
Since then, options for diaries have expanded with technological advances. Data can be captured within the same day and time stamped to eliminate the frustration and inaccuracy of recall. In a large electronic diary study, where patients were asked how likely they were to have a migraine, a close relationship between the estimated probability and observed probability showed 72% accuracy (Giffin et al., 2003, cited in Lipton et al, 2014).)
"You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf." -Jon-Kabat-Zinn (Amaal Starling MD AHS14AZ)
Once trigger factors are identified, we can avoid or learn to mange them. For example, we can avoid triggers that are not consistent with a healthy lifestyle such as toxic smells, hunger, dehydration, and lack of sleep. We can learn to manage, "learn to cope" (train ourselves not to over-react to stimuli), with other triggers like stress (Martin et al., (2014).
Recognizing our premonitory symptoms as signs of an impending attack gives us a window of opportunity to intervene with protective factors. For example, in my case, fatigue, blurred vision and irritability are definite indications that a headache phase is on its' way. Since I have become accomplished at protective measures such as biofeedback, diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation, I can often take action to avoid, or lessen, the pain and associated symptoms (ictal state).
Preemptive therapy (or short term prophylactic treatment) is an emerging strategy with features of both acute and preventive treatment (Pavlovic et al., 2014). The advantage for people who spend most of their time in the inter-ictal state and are able to reliably predict attacks is that medication may be taken only when it is needed, that is in advance of an anticipated attack to avoid a headache, not on a daily basis (Lipton et al, 2014). An example of this approach is the short-term prevention of menstrual migraine. An additional advantage is that, because medication is taken only when necessary, it reduces exposure to medication and the harmful effects of medication overuse.
"Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you can handle what happens to you." -Anonymous
There is no cure for migraine disease. However, as research continues to progress, we can increase our knowledge and understanding of associations between trigger factors, protective factors, premonitory features and attacks, and improve our ability to predict attacks , as well as decrease their frequency.
Friedman, D., I., MD., MPH., & De Ver Dye, T., PhD. (2009). "Migraine and the Environment." Headache. Feb;25:941-950.
Kelman, L. (2004). "The premonitory symptoms (prodrome): a tertiary care study of 893 migraineurs." Headache. Oct;44(9):865-72.
Lipton, R., B., Pavlovic, J.,M., Haut, S. R., Grosberg, B. M., and Buse, D., C. (2014). " Methodological Issues In Studying Trigger Factors and Premonitory Features of Migraine". Headache. Nov;54(10):1661-9. doi:10.1111/head.12464. Epub 2014 Oct 23.
Martin, P., R., & Reece, J., et al. (2014). "Behavioral management of the triggers of recurrent headache: A randomized controlled trial." Behavioral Research and Therapy. 61: 1-11.
Pavlovic, J., M., Buse, D., C., Sollars, M., Haut, S., & Lipton, R., B. (2014). "Trigger Factors and Premonitory Features of Migraine Attacks: Summary of Studies." Headache. Nov;54(10):1670-9. doi:10.1111/head.12468.
Spierings, E., L., H., Donoghue., S., Mian, A., & Wober, C. (2014). " Sufficiency and Necessity in Migraine: How do we Figure Out if Triggers are Absolute or Partial and, if Partial, Additive or Potentiating?" Curr Pain Headache Rep. 18:455. DOI. 1007/s11916-014-0455-y.
Turner, D., P., et al. (2014). "Nightime snacking, stress, and migraine activity." J Clin Neurosci.
Sharron is a health and wellness author. A migraineur herself, her most recent book, "Migraine: Identify Your Triggers, Break Your Dependence On Medication, Take Back Your Life-An Integrative Self-Care Plan For Wellness", (2013), is a Conari Press Publication.
This article is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any specific concerns about your health or nutrition, please consult a qualified health care professional.
Copyright December, 2014, Sharron E. Murray