When Are Migraines Considered Chronic?

When someone tells you they have a headache, you'd likely advise them to take some painkillers or go and lie down until it passes. It might just do the trick and make them feel better. But it's with noting that headaches and migraines are not the same. People with migraines experience debilitating and excruciating pain around their head and sometimes eye region that makes everyday functions like having a conversation or even laying down challenging (via Self). 

As 34-year-old Elizabeth, who has suffered from migraines since high school, revealed she has to "avoid all light" during an episode or "it just feels like someone is stabbing" her. Migraines are a neurological condition and according to the American Migraine Foundation, at least 39 million people in the U.S. suffer from them. Treatment varies depending on the symptoms. A typical migraine manifests as a moderate to severe throbbing headache that is located in the region of the head, eyes, and even cheeks. 

Likewise, some people feel nauseous and have increased sensitivity to light, sound, and scents as well. The symptoms brought on by a migraine can last for hours but they can stretch to days in the most severe cases. As unpleasant as that sounds, there is yet another important distinction between episodic migraines and ones of the chronic variety. 

Chronic migraines are more frequent

The difference between an episodic and a chronic migraine relates primarily to the number of times you get them in a month, as a study published in Springer Current Pain and Headache Reports found. With a migraine, the pain occurs anywhere between 0 to 14 days in a month but it's only considered chronic when the headaches increase to "15 or more days per month for 3 or more months." 

The American Migraine Foundation reports that 3 to 5% of Americans suffer from chronic migraines. During the 15 days or more when sufferers are dealing with chronic migraines, eight will be characterized by the following; the level of pain is often intense (although it can be moderate to severe too), the location of the pounding feeling is on "one side of the head or both," the pulsating pain increases with motion, and all of these horrible symptoms are accompanied by nausea and increased vulnerability to light and noise. 

Although it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of chronic migraines, in most cases, episodic migraines develop in frequency to become known as chronic, per the Migraine Trust. Even though certain people go into remission, for others, their headaches only get worse over time. Chronic migraines affect almost all areas of a person's life — social, relational, professional, etc. Mental health conditions such as depression can also cause someone to move from episodic to chronic migraines (via Healthline).  

How to treat chronic migraines

While there are various home remedies and even a cooling headache hat you can try for migraines when it comes to the chronic variety, the treatment is a little different (via the American Migraine Foundation). It typically requires medication both to soothe the symptoms and to prevent the headaches from coming on in the first place, as Healthline explains. Pain relief medications include "analgesics, dopamine antagonists, ergotamines, and triptans," while the preventative treatments include Botox, though it has certain unfavorable side effects, alongside beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and anticonvulsant drugs which are more tolerable.   

However, something major that people with chronic migraines are vulnerable to is "medication overuse headaches," as the Migraine Trust reports. This occurs when typical acute treatment medications, for pain relief, start to cause more headaches in migraine sufferers. This is brought on mainly by the overuse of over-the-counter pills. 

People with chronic migraines should also consider exercising and doing other forms of stress relief to complement their medical treatment of the condition, as Healthline advises. Alternative treatments such as acupuncture and biofeedback are also options, as are dietary supplements such as magnesium and vitamin B-2.