How Do Migraines Affect Cognitive Function?

Migraines are a neurological condition that affects 6 million people in the UK.  Women have migraines more than men due to their fluctuating hormones.  Not much research goes into this debilitating neurological condition. Businesses lose thousands of pounds each year because of staff off work with migraines.

A headache is only one symptom of migraines others include; blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, light sensitivity, aura and sound sensitivity.  There are two main types of a migraine with and without aura.  The Migraine Trust identifies five stages of a migraine; premonitory stage, aura, headache, resolution and recovery.

Triptans are migraine medications that relax the blood vessels to the brain and ease the pain.  Migraine sufferers track triggers in a diary so that they can see a pattern in the attacks.  Triggers include; chocolate, strong scents, bright lights, hormone changes, spicy food, stress and noise.  Avoiding triggers is a good way to prevent migraines from occurring.

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How Are Migraines Diagnosed?

Migraines affect people between 15 and 55 years old. Women are more likely to have migraines due to hormone changes.  There is no specific test to diagnose migraines.  Doctors analyse information relating to; family history of headaches, triggers, duration, frequency and how debilitating they are.  A neurological assessment also informs diagnosis.

Headaches last between seven and 72 hours.  Chronic migraines occur frequently and ruin the sufferer’s life.  Others have sporadic headaches which don’t disturb their lives as much.  The success of treatment varies.  Headaches cost UK industry £2.25 billion in sick days and the NHS £150 million in prescriptions.  Little research goes into the cause and treatment of migraines which is surprising considering their financial impact.

Treatment deals with physical pain and nausea.  Traditional painkillers containing opiates dull the pain but become addictive after long-term use.  Triptans are selective serotonin antagonists which relieve headaches by relaxing the blood vessels to the brain.  They reduce the intensity of a headache if taken at the first sign of symptoms.

What Is Cognitive Function?

Cognitive function is essential to our survival.  It refers to our ability to make decisions, socialise, plan, understand the world around, learn knowledge, common sense and make memories.  Our brains organise cognitive function and act like a conductor in an orchestra.  It affects so many aspects of our lives that psychologists, neurologists, anthropologists and philosophers study it.  Physically it affects our spacial awareness and ability to carry out simple tasks like fastening a shoelace.

Brain damage, strokes and lesions in the brain cause cognitive impairment.  This affects our ability to communicate with people, make decisions and accomplish simple tasks.  Our attitude and behaviour towards others changes and we may cause pain and upset to other people.  We develop cognitively as we grow up.  Children learn a lot of cognitive skills through play.  Neural pathways form so that we can repeat the new skill.  Cognitive impairment blocks the neural pathways making it difficult to complete a task or interpret the needs of others.

Relearning skills is a long drawn out process because you have to start from the beginning again.  Migraines temporarily block the neural pathways making daily tasks difficult.  This is very debilitating and makes the sufferer unable to do their work.  Once the migraine passes and the sufferer recovers cognitive function returns back to normal.  

You must consult your doctor if migraines affect your cognitive function because it could be a sign of an underlying health condition. 

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By Parv Sagoo (February 2018)