This week is National Migraine Awareness Week, its purpose to generate interest in and understanding of a condition often belittled, but which is in fact the third most common disease worldwide. With eight million sufferers in the UK alone, it is responsible for a massive eighteen million sick days each year, costing our economy almost two and a half billion pounds.

For those who suffer migraines, it is much more than “just a headache”. Some individuals notice an aura, such as flashing lights, before an intense, pulsating headache which may also incorporate nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Others may not have the preceding aura, and a third group describe aura without headache. A condition called hemiplegic migraine can mimic the symptoms of a stroke and may be incredibly frightening.

Migraines typically start from teenage years to early adulthood. Episodes can last from a few hours to days, during which the sufferer may be completely unable to function. While some persons may report an attack once in a blue moon, unlucky individuals can have several episodes every month. Migraine is more common in women, and it is thought that altering levels of sex hormones during the menstrual cycle are partly responsible for this imbalance.

The reality is that we aren’t completely sure what causes migraines. Theories include the nervous system being overly sensitive to stimuli such as pain, sound or light. Another concept is that blood vessels in the brain widen and narrow more rapidly than in non-sufferers.

Aside from this, certain triggers can bring on a migraine. To name all would be impossible, but they include certain food and drinks, stress, sleep disturbance and changes in altitude. If you are struggling to work out what precipitates your migraine, keep a symptom diary for a month to see if any pattern emerges.

Immediate management of a migraine is to take simple painkillers. Triptans are medicines specifically for acute migraine, and if nausea is a strong component, you may benefit from an anti-sickness preparation as well. Lying down in a dark room can also help.

If migraines are causing significant disturbance to your life, you may want to discuss preventative treatment with your GP. Many drugs used were initially developed for other conditions, and subsequently noticed to have a positive effect on migraines. They include an epilepsy drug called topiramate, and propranolol, used to manage heart disease and anxiety. Riboflavin, otherwise known as Vitamin B2, has shown to benefit some sufferers.

Certain serious conditions must not be mistaken for migraines, and if your symptoms are in any way different from normal or you are concerned, please seek immediate medical help.

The first drug specifically designed to prevent migraines, Erenumab, also called Aimovig will be released in this month. Although the once monthly injection, which can be self-administered, is yet to be available on an NHS prescription, manufacturer Novartis advises it can be purchased privately, having been approved by the European Medicines Agency for patients who have four or more migraines a month.