According to the National Headache Foundation, 24 percent of all migraine sufferers have sought emergency room treatment for their migraines. Unfortunately, emergency room staff may not always be equipped to diagnose or treat migraines. Understanding migraines and their treatment can help you determine when it’s appropriate to seek emergency care.
Many people seek emergency treatment for severe headaches without realizing they are experiencing migraines. Severe head pain, usually concentrated on one side of the head or in a specific area, is the characteristic symptom of migraines. The pain usually builds over several minutes or hours rather than occurring suddenly. Other common symptoms include nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to lights, odors and sounds. Migraines may not respond to over-the-counter pain medications and can last from several hours to several days.
Headaches are the sixth most common reason for emergency room visits, yet only 30 percent of migraine sufferers receive the correct diagnosis in the emergency room, according to University of Georgia College of Pharmacy assistant professor Jackie Kwong. Emergency room staff are trained to handle life-threatening situations, and migraines usually don’t fall into that category. However, migraine sufferers who have not received a diagnosis may perceive migraine pain as an indication of an emergency, such as an aneurysm. Alternately, even those who understand migraines may not be equipped to deal with the acute pain.
Emergency Room Treatment
Pain-blocking drugs, including narcotics, are the most common treatment for migraines in the emergency room. Non-narcotic emergency room treatments may include sumatriptan, valproic acid, magnesium or dropertidol. Usually administered by injection, these medications treat the primary symptom rather than the root of the pain: dilated blood vessels in the brain. These medications also do little or nothing to prevent future migraine attacks. Because of this, migraine sufferers may find themselves returning to the emergency room for treatment each time a migraine strikes.
Comprehensive Migraine Treatment
With proper diagnosis, migraine sufferers can develop a comprehensive plan that allows them to avoid emergency room treatment. For example, lifestyle adjustments such as changes in diet, a regular sleeping schedule and stress reduction can decrease migraine occurrences. In addition, preventative medications such as antidepressants and seizure medications can limit migraines, and abortive medications can keep a migraine already in progress from worsening. Having these medications on hand will make it less necessary for migraine sufferers to seek emergency room treatment.
When to Visit the Emergency Room
However, even frequent migraine sufferers should not refrain from seeking emergency treatment for especially severe headaches. According to the Migraine Awareness Group, migraine sufferers are more prone to strokes, and 27 percent of strokes in individuals under the age of 45 are caused by migraines. Seek immediate treatment if a severe headache comes on suddenly, follows a different pattern than your usual headaches or is accompanied by confusion or difficulty speaking.