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What Sets Me Off: Migraine Triggers

trig·ger noun \ˈtri-gər\ :something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction

The path that I have taken through my journey of migraines started at the early age of 12. I experienced extreme pain, nausea and inability to tolerate light and sound. I remember my sympathetic parents trying to do everything they could to help me at the time from medicine to warm and cool compresses and even just trying to let me sleep. When we finally went to my family physician I was introduced to a new life-long struggle. Triggers. He explained to me that sometimes things that I was surrounded by would cause my neurological system to become oversensitive to what other people consider normal and react in a way that would cause my migraines. The first and most common that we identified were food triggers. Also common were environmental such as smells, sounds or sights. I have found that as I have grown I have fine tuned my triggers and identified what makes me more venerable to migraine attacks.
Foods are the majority of what I would consider my triggers. I practice high to complete avoidance of these triggers especially if they are combined with other triggers or high stress events. Some of the foods I would consider high avoidance would be caffeine, chocolate, nitrates, nitrites (often found in lunchmeats or processed meats), and artificial sweeteners (like splenda). I also keep a watchful eye on other food triggers such as bananas, lemons, MSG, sodium, or excess in sugars.
Another type of trigger that I struggle with is environmental. What surrounds me often is out of my control, and therefore I cannot avoid it, but things that tend to cause me problems are strong odors such as perfumes (bath and body works is a wonderful example of somewhere I love, but I can only be in a small amount of time before I feel ill), cleaning solutions, paint, nail polish, or hairsprays. I am careful to select my own products in a way that will not bother me and cause migraines.
Loud noises are also something that I try to avoid. I have to be careful in restaurants with loud music, or concerts. I find myself to get painless migraine symptoms of confusion, or aphasia. I have found that wearing foam ear plugs helps as long as the people around me know that I am wearing them for the reason of migraines — and as long as the lights or other reasons don’t or won’t trigger a migraine. That being said, flashing lights, brights on car headlights, strobe lights, and florescent lights will also tend to trigger migraines. I can stand florescent lights to an extent, but I try to avoid them as much as possible.
When I talk to other people about my triggers they often will recall triggers that friends of family have. Other common triggers I hear about include dairy products, spicy foods, or computer usage. Each person has their own set of triggers that their body can or cannot handle — and that being said it can be a long journey to discover what those things are. I have spent a lot of time journaling my migraines, my emotions, medications, activities, surroundings, and diet through my migraine journey. I feel that there are still many triggers out there that I am not aware of — but for the most part I have identified many of my major triggers.
To the community — what have you done to identify your triggers? What can I do to identify what else might be causing my migraines? Are there other “Big” triggers out there that are known of?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • 100dollarheadache
    6 years ago

    this article is a mirror image of my own situation, including computer screens. i can never use a computer in a dim or dark room. i get 5 to 7 migraines per month but it does affect me a couple days per episode. i lose 10 to 15 days a month to migraine. lack of sleep, stress, lights of all kinds, not eating right, artificial sweeteners,bright sun and its reflection as well as over exertion are some of my triggers. it is debilitating. even with administering as soon as possible, at first symptom, the aura, i still do not win the battle . dizziness, cold sweat, weak legs set in. my eyesight is affected with flashes of light, lines and black spots. sometimes i lose my vision. i open my eyes and it feels like my eyes are blocked with black clouds. this sets in motion hours of pain or passing out from meds., uncontrolled vomiting and dehydration. compazine usually settles things down and i fall into submission of sleep. there were times i have slept 12 to 14 hours after a migraine. i awake to a hangover. that is the only way i can explain it. very sensitive to light, sound or eating. this whole process lasts 2 days and on occasion has went into a third day. i can not function when a migraine sets in motion. i can not drive and there have been times i have been stuck suffering in my car for hours. i have gone to the hospital. i have also called family or friend to come and get me. with the spring season coming, i truly believe that weather also has been a trigger. windy days or fall like days have set in motion my headaches. 90 % of my migraines have come during the day and sunlight. rarely at night i get a migraine and it usually occurs when driving and the headlights of oncoming cars. even a real busy shirt or busy painting or art work has given me the aura feeling and nausea. trying to pick up branches in my yard 2 weeks ago set off a migraine, the repetitive motion of bending over and back up again repeatedly set of a migraine. i was very sick that day and half of the next. concussions have been a serious issue with me. i have had several in my life. some from football, some form a couple auto accidents. i have had stitches in my head at least 10 times, form 5 stitches to the 30 i got playing hockey. i really believe this set into motion my history of migraines. some much trauma to my head has taken its toll. every day when i wake up i am aware to the fact that i could be sick today and tomorrow too. i gather my thoughts and shake the cob webs to concentrate on how my head is feeling at that moment. the rest of the day i am in prevent mode. hoping to get through the day.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    6 years ago

    Hi,

    What kind of doctor are you seeing to treat your migraines and headaches? You may want to consider seeing a migraine specialist or a doctor who specializes in concussion management. Let me give you some information on how migraine specialists are different; http://migraine.com/blog/how-are-migraine-specialists-different/. And if you want to look for a migraine specialist, take a look at this link; https://migraine.com/blog/looking-for-a-migraine-specialist/. Hang in there.

  • Dave
    6 years ago

    My wife was two years old when she began suffering from massive migraines. Doctors tested, x-rayed and did all that was known at that time to find the source. They could not. Fast forward through countless migraines to 2005 when she suffered was initially diagnosed as a heart attack. At the CCU, they pushed a cath through her veins to check out her blood vessels. All was good. Three years later, her sister began suffering the same massive migraines. When she she shown a picture with white spots all over her brain and was told it might be MS, she wanted another opinion. After some searching she ended up at a CARDIOLOGIST who tested her and quickly determined she had a “hole in her heart”. My wife was similarly diagnosed, as was her youngest sister. I shared this with my college roommate who suffered a “mini-stroke” at 23 and was given a medical discharge from the Navy. All suffered from severe migraines with multiple triggers–odors, chemicals, stress, etc. All had a simple procedure done to close the holes in their hearts! When Poison’s lead singer, Bret Michaels, was reported to have had a brain hemorrhage and then a TIA (stroke), I wrote his doctor and referred him to our doctor and suggested it was a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a “hole in the heart.” My wife’s migraines are now much less painful, less frequent, and respond to over the counter therapy (Excedrin Migraine).

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    6 years ago

    Hi Dave, Thank you for bringing up the subject of PFO. I’m really glad that your wife’s Migraines have improved with her closure. Unfortunately, closure of PFO can sometimes eliminate one trigger, but most Migraineurs have multiple triggers. PFO may be an underlying problem with some patients, but certainly not all. I think at last count there were about 11 different genetic links to Migraine and controlling things ranging from iron storage in the brain, to being an outright cause for example: familial hemiplegic Migraine. Those are just the ones we’re aware of today. Research on PFO closure and Migraine was quite active for a while and is still somewhat ongoing, however they didn’t really get the results they had hoped, and the studies were largely abandoned. More information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/106434738635/ Thank you for wanting to share your positive story with others, but it’s important for everyone to understand that, even though it can be helpful to some, this is not a cure-all by any means. If it were, I assure you that we’d all be doing it. 🙂

  • Editorial Team moderator
    6 years ago

    Hi Dave, Thanks for sharing your wife’s story with us! Even though there seems to be a relationship between PFO and migraine, unfortunately closing a PFO isn’t a recommended solution for most patients with migraine based on the current research. You can read Dr. Green’s response here: http://migraine.com/blog/are-my-migraines-related-to-my-patent-foramen-ovale-pfo-will-treating-or-closing-the-pfo-help-my-migraines/

  • Janet
    6 years ago

    By your picture you are very young…I was twenty when I had my first migraine. It’s 36 yrs later…and they have been so intense these past 12 years I’m about to explode!

    I agree with everything you wrote. I pray that for my daughter who is 27 now and been having migraines since high school..a cure will be found. For now.. We migraineurs suffer in our private world where nobody but one of us can understand….
    Janet Jones
    Las Vegas to Atlanta

  • Dana
    6 years ago

    I also have chronic migraines that ‘run in the family’ and also strokes. My grandmother had a PFO, however, I have had an echo and I do not have a PFO. Unfortunately the PFO is not the miracle solution for all of us. I wish it was.

  • Dave
    6 years ago

    If severe migraines or strokes are “in the family”, I would bet a dollar to a dime it’s a patent foramen ovale (PFO) or “hole in the heart.” My wife and two of her three sisters, two of her aunts, grandmother, etc. See my post above… A diagnostic test for PFO takes minutes – the fix (a patch) takes less than an hour in a cath lab, and the results are life-changing!

  • Teri-Robert
    6 years ago

    Well, that’s one theory, but you’d be wrong in my case. I can track Migraines back several generations in my family on both sids, and I definitely don’t have a PFO.

  • tucker
    6 years ago

    Almost 10 yrs of journal keeping and I still can’t decipher all my triggers, but I do know that they are evolving as Nancy says. Many of my migraines start with nausea and evolve to head pain so if smells around me are strong, I’m doomed.

    I will say that never say you can’t affect change in your environment. There is a business on the main road I travel on near my house that has a horrendously glaringly bright ??LED?? sign right at the edge of the road. I have never seen anything like it and I have lived in Atlanta and now another fairly decent sized city in the mid-Atlantic. I finally emailed them about a week ago after years of agonizing over this painful light and at the end of a bad 2 day migraine. Enough was enough. Not only was that light migraine inducing, it’s constant eye draw was very distracting to drivers in my honest opinion.

    Well low and behold, I *think* they have toned it down! I have driven by it almost every day this week in the dark and it seems that they now use colors instead of white and it seems that the light is not as strong. I’ll give them a few more weeks just to be sure but I am amazed my email caused change so quickly!

    Now if I could just get my coworker that I sit next to to wash his stinky to high heaven lab coat and stop smoking, that would eliminate 2 more of my chronic nausea triggers and I’d be a happy girl! We don’t ask for much, do we?

  • Dave
    6 years ago

    As a 35-year observer, and migraine sufferer care giver, my theory is simple: it is not the strength of the smell, it’s what in the air. Tiny air bubbles are passing through your blood stream, through your heart and into your brain. Please see my post above…

  • Teri-Robert
    6 years ago

    With all due respect, you cannot make the statement, “Tiny air bubbles are passing through your blood stream, through your heart and into your brain,” unless you’re a physician who has tested that theory on each individual you say it to and know it to be true. We’re all different.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    Hi there,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. As you know trigger identification and management is a vital part of a migraine management plan. One of the problems with triggers is the can change over time. For example, I never had a problem chopping raw onions, but I am no longer able to do that, especially if it is an old onion because it will trigger a migraine.
    You mentioned tracking many things in regards to your migraine which is very helpful. Many of us use a migraine diary to identify our triggers. It takes time and patience, but is doable. A migraine diary is very helpful to sort out triggers, and there are many of them out there. If you have a smartphone, Migraine.com has a new app here is the link for that http://migraine.com/migraine-tools/. I wish I could tell you that there are “Big” ones out there besides the ones you’ve mentioned, but we are all so different and triggered by different things. Chocolate doesn’t trigger me, but will trigger a migraine for my son. Some other common migraine triggers include dehydration, skipping meals, changes in the barometric weather pressure, fluctuating hormones and sleep issues. When you get a minute you might want to take a look at this article about triggers; http://migraine.com/blog/migraine-management-essential-trigger-management/.Let me know what you think, ok?

  • pooh2you
    7 years ago

    Red Wine, and now unfortunately, most alcoholic drinks (incl beer) are a big trigger for me. I have been told to try vodka. Not sure if I will, I am kind of afraid. It’s not that I am a big drinker, but a nice adult beverage now and and then would be nice. LOL

  • tucker
    6 years ago

    LOL, I’ve had bad reactions to my favorite wine (I now have 23 bottles thanks to a mail order and my FIL bringing me back a case of it from NY (it’s a special grape from NY) and to beer and hadn’t had anything to drink since turkey day. I was finally convinced to go out for a girl’s day out on Sat and had a Blue Margarita, figured what the hay, I’d been in migraine wonderland since before Christmas and what was another day? Woolah! Not even a headache or nausea! YEAH! and ironically, I’ve had a good week too. hmmmmmm……..

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    Hi pooh,

    I’m not a big drinker either, but every once in a while it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Better off staying with “mock tails” to be safe, for me, most of the time, anyway. 😉

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