Painful Genes: Are Migraines Hereditary?
Migraines are one of the most common debilitating medical conditions. The CDC estimates that one in seven American adults experiences at least one migraine headache per year. At the time the study was conducted, 14% of participants reported having one in the past three months.
Suffering from frequent migraines can make it difficult to live a normal life. Even so, we don’t have a great understanding of where they come from or how to deal with the condition.
What is it like to deal with this condition, are migraines hereditary, and can you do anything to manage them? We’ll answer these questions and more below.
What Is a Migraine?
For anyone who hasn’t had a migraine, it’s easy to assume that it’s just a bad headache. However, the people who suffer from them will assure you there’s a huge difference. Aside from throbbing, pounding, or piercing head pain, symptoms include:
- Photophobia (light sensitivity)
- Blurred vision or vision loss
- Severe pain in the eyes or on one side of the head
- Sensitivity to sounds and smells
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Along with these symptoms, many people with migraines also experience what’s called an “aura.” This can take the form of any number of sensory disturbances like flashes of light, blind spots, numbness or tingling, weakness, and speech difficulties. These symptoms often appear an hour or so before the migraine itself begins.
People who aren’t familiar with migraine auras might mistake these symptoms for a stroke. Unless you’re certain what you’re experiencing is due to a migraine, it’s vital to see a doctor right away to rule out something more serious.
Are Migraines Hereditary?
One of the biggest hurdles to understanding whether migraines are hereditary is that researchers aren’t sure what the gene is that causes them. There’s only one type of migraine with a clear genetic link, and it’s rare. Familial hemiplegic migraine affects one in 10,000 people and is known for having more serious symptoms like muscle weakness and speech difficulties.
But for those of us with non-hemiplegic migraines, the diagnosis is clinical. That means there isn’t a specific test that can prove what you’re experiencing is a migraine—the doctor decides based on your description of the symptoms. So even if you and your mother both experience migraine headaches, you can’t be sure that it’s due to the same genetic factors.
Even so, there does seem to be a strong familial link between migraine sufferers. It’s estimated that 90% of people with migraines also have a family history of the condition, though many of these family members don’t have a formal diagnosis.
Because we aren’t quite sure what causes migraines, there’s no way to tell whether you’ll pass it on to your children. But if you have certain sensitivities that trigger attacks, your kids may be predisposed to them as well.
What About Post-Injury Migraines?
Not everyone who suffers from migraines has a family history of the condition—some people start to experience them as a result of traumatic head or neck injuries. These often come as a result of car accidents, but any type of head trauma can lead to headaches.
Mild to moderate headaches are one of the most common symptoms following a concussion injury. But in some cases, the headaches don’t go away after a few weeks when the concussion heals.
These chronic headaches can turn into migraines and shouldn’t be ignored. They might be the result of a subdural hematoma or other brain and skull damage that didn’t heal properly. If you continue to experience migraine-level headaches for more than a month or two after a concussion, talk to your doctor right away.
How to Manage Your Migraines, Hereditary or Not
When your head feels like it’s going to explode on top of all the other symptoms of migraines, you’re willing to try just about anything to get it to stop. As such, there’s a whole host of creative natural and home remedies you can try to deal with the condition. Some of them include:
- Essential oils
- Heat and ice
- Over-the-counter pain medicine
- Diet changes
Not all of these methods are backed by science, but if your migraines are only moderate or infrequent, they’re worth a try. If your headaches are severe and interfere with your life, it’s time to see a doctor or chiropractor who provides headache pain services.
The doctor may be able to identify whether your migraines are the result of an external factor like a head injury, nerve compression, or Chiari malformation. They might prescribe medication to help you deal with the pain or recommend spinal manipulation to fix your alignment.
But in some cases, the best way to manage migraines is to identify your triggers and avoid them. Some people find that they’re more prone to headaches when they’re dehydrated, after eating certain foods, or after drinking alcohol. Others find that bright lights, loud noises, or certain smells are responsible for the pain.
You may not be able to avoid your triggers entirely, but you can take steps to decrease their effects. If you’re light sensitive, for example, consider getting a pair of polarized sunglasses with side shields for when you’re outside in the sun. If you’re sensitive to smells, try to avoid walking through the perfume section of stores and use unscented soaps and detergents.
Does Your Family Have a History of Migraine Headaches?
If you were wondering “are migraines hereditary?” it might be a good idea to take a look at your family tree. Do other members of your family suffer from debilitating headaches as well? If so, talk to them to find out how they’ve dealt with the condition—you just might learn how to make your migraines more manageable.
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