Migraine and The Trigger Trap

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Image from migraine.com 

Weather and wine and chocolate, oh MY! Those terrible triggers!

(An important distinction here before we continue: triggers are NOT what “causes” migraine. Migraine is a disease that causes sensitivity to triggers (stimuli). If one does not have migraine disease, triggers don’t affect them in this manner.)

Today I came across an interesting post on a friend’s Facebook about a study on triggers:

“Our study results show that people with migraine have great difficulty identifying their personal triggers and their suspicions may be overly influenced by beliefs popularized on the internet. Unfortunately, these misperceptions lead to a lower quality of life by people avoiding many things they love but without good scientific reason,” explains Alec Mian, CEO and founder of Curelator Inc.
The first study examined trigger suspicions in users with episodic vs. chronic migraine and revealed an unexpected disconnect between suspicions and scientific reality. Both groups suspected virtually the same set of triggers. However, after using Curelator Headache, which scientifically determines true risk factor associations, significant differences in triggers were revealed between episodic vs. chronic participants.”

The funny thing about this is that it ISN’T a new idea. I’ve been talking about how triggers may not actually be triggers since reading a few articles in this vein a few years ago, and how triggers are often cumulative, so the most recent events or substance that pushes an attack into existence may be the one blamed, when in fact it’s a progression.

Take, for instance, this article from WebMD and one on a correlating study from TIME magazine, both from 2013:

“In his clinical practice, he sees many patients whose quality of life suffers as a result of both their migraines and their efforts to avoid triggers that they believe will lead to attacks. In addition to light and exercise, other proposed triggers include stress, emotions, and certain foods.
But there’s little evidence that any of these things really do trigger attacks, says Goadsby. He hopes that, in addition to the current study, there will be much more research on triggers.
“There are tens of millions of people with migraine,” says Goadsby, “and all they have to go on are tales handed down about what triggers them.”

“You eat chocolate and you get a headache. Does that mean chocolate triggers the headache?” Silberstein asks. “What probably happens is the first symptom of your migraine attack is the desire to eat chocolate. Just like when you’re pregnant, you might want pickles or ice cream. That’s one end of the spectrum, where the desire to do something is part of the migraine attack, not the trigger.”
Distinguishing between triggers and symptoms is challenging, not just for those who study migraines but for patients as well. Silberstein says there are some known triggers, such as certain odors, hunger, chemicals in alcohol and hormonal changes linked to menstruation, but that other factors may fall somewhere between an actual trigger and a symptom. How can patients tell? “Everybody with a migraine should try to find out what is triggering their attacks,” Olesen says. “When they have a suspicion, it would be a good idea to try and see if it induces an attack. In most cases, it’s probably not going to be true.”
Both Olesen and Silberstein say there are a number of factors that determine whether these suspected triggers will actually lead to an attack. Patients likely have individual thresholds that vary from day to day and from environment to environment: some days your brain is less vulnerable to certain triggers, while on other days the conditions might be right for a migraine.”

The TIME article prompted me to test some of the things I’d previously thought were my triggers, one of which was pepperoni pizza–one of my all time favorite foods and something that is high on the list of things thought to contain classic triggers (aged cheeses and aged, dried, fermented, or smoked meats).
Guess what I found? It did NOT always set off an attack. The times it seemed to were usually times I was already in danger of one, pointing to the cumulative factor, or that it wasn’t one.

Now, triggers CAN change over time; as my attacks progressed to chronic, so did the things that could set them off. But many of those were environmental or cumulative. Some were unavoidable, like weather–scientists don’t know why weather/barometric pressure are likely to set off attacks for so many of us, but science has shown that it does. Others were fragrances like perfumes or cleaning products (bleach is the number one).

When I became daily chronic, triggers more or less went out the window. Nothing actually set off an attack as mine was 24/7, 365, but some things could certainly worsen my pain/symptomatic level. Weather is still the most reliable one, but fluorescent lighting is up there, along with odors and certain chemicals. Too much exercise can exacerbate it, but carefully paced exercise or exertion may or may not. I seem to have a stunning zero food or drink triggers…and I suspect some of us may have less of them than we think.

One of my friends is entirely triggered by environmental allergies ; she’s literally allergic to the environment.
I know allergens in the environment affect mine adversely.

The takeaway here: triggers may not be what we’ve thought they were, either in what we think they are or in their influence on migraine. This may not change how you see them, but it’s worth following.


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