Medical Notes: Think pharmacy when it comes to migraine awareness

Think Pharmacy for Migraine Awareness

A pharmacist can help you identify the type of headache you have
Raymond Anderson

ACCORDING to the Migraine Trust, migraine affects more than eight million people in Britain and Northern Ireland. It can have a huge impact on quality of life for those who suffer. Yet, for many of us it is difficult to understand when a headache is, or isn’t, a migraine.

Your local pharmacist can help you identify the type of headache you have, which is very important to ensure you get the best advice and treatment – in fact, there is hardly a day goes by when I am not advising a patient on pain relief for headache.

Most commonly, headache may be directly caused by tension, or stress. Migraine is another common cause, being most common in women. However, sometimes headache occurs because of other health issues, such as infection or injury.

The use or overuse of certain other medicines such as painkillers can also be a cause for headache. As pharmacists, we are trained to know when to refer a patient to their doctor or another healthcare provider for treatment, so asking questions helps me make sure that the patient is not suffering from any symptoms which would indicate a more serious cause of headache.

As a migraine sufferer myself, I know only too well the impact that migraine can have on work and daily life. A migraine is a severe headache, with a throbbing-type pain. It typically occurs in episodes, usually on one side of the head and patients can feel sick or may be sick at the same time.

It can also cause patients to feel more sensitive to light or sound, which is why migraine sufferers will tend to lie down in a dark, quiet room.

Sometimes, the term ‘aura’ can be used when describing stages of a migraine. An aura usually happens before the migraine and a patient may experience symptoms such as changes to their sight (seeing spots or ‘stars’), or feeling weak or dizzy. Hearing or speech may also be affected. Not every migraine sufferer will experience an aura.

To treat a migraine, I will ask the patient about their attacks and how often they occur, or if they may be triggered by anything in particular, such as altered sleep patterns, a woman’s menstrual cycle, or even foods such as cheese, chocolate or alcohol.

To treat a migraine in adults, I can offer a range of treatments depending on the symptoms and if there has been a clear diagnosis of migraine. When recommending treatment, I will ask the patient a number of questions about other medications they may be on, or conditions they may have, to be sure that the treatment is appropriate for them.


Treatment such as sumatriptan tablets 50mg, ibuprofen and paracetamol can all be bought over the counter, so patients do not need a prescription. This saves a visit to the GP, which is not only a lot more convenient for my patients but it means the health service saves money too.

Last year in Northern Ireland, £6 million was spent on prescriptions for paracetamol, which could pay for 57,143 MRI scans, or 175 nurses. Making better use of our healthcare resources is something I am very passionate about and as a community pharmacist, I am keen to help my patients improve their health and protect against health problems in the future.

For migraine sufferers, I always try to reassure my patients that while migraine cannot be cured, it can be managed and will typically improve over time.

Keeping a diary of headache symptoms is useful to help notice when symptoms get better, or worse. By making simple changes improvements can also be made so I try to offer advice on stress relieving techniques, dietary changes and physical activity.

:: Raymond Anderson is a community pharmacist and president of the Commonwealth Pharmacists Association. Migraine Awareness Week runs until September 10.

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