Migraine Headache

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Migraine headache facts

  • Migraine headache is a result of specific changes within the brain. It causes severe head pain that is often accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
  • Common symptoms of migraine are:
    • Eye pain
    • Sensitivity to light or sound
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Severe pain, usually on one side of the head that some individuals describe as "pounding"
  • Other types of headaches can also cause severe pain, and not all headaches are migraines. For example, some people describe the pain of cluster headaches as the worst pain they have experienced.
  • The exact cause of migraines is not known. Changes in neurotransmitter levels within the brain are thought to play a role.
  • Migraines are diagnosed by the typical clinical signs and symptoms.
  • A number of factors can trigger migraines to include:
    • hormonal changes,
    • stress,
    • strong stimuli like loud noises, and
    • certain foods.
  • Treatment of migraine involves over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications.
  • Prescription medications used to relieve the pain of migraine include the triptans, for example,
  • Lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise may be useful to help migraine sufferers manage the triggers of their condition.
  • Avoiding dietary triggers of migraines may be able to help some patients decrease the frequency of attacks.
  • Some people find that exercises, such as yoga, that promote muscle relaxation are helpful in pain management.
  • Most people with migraines find their condition to be manageable with a combination of medications and lifestyle modifications.
  • Preventive medications of a variety of drug classes may be used in some patients to decrease the frequency of migraines.

What is a migraine?

Although many people use the term "migraine" to describe any severe headache, a migraine headache is the result of specific physiologic changes that occur within the brain and lead to the characteristic pain and associated symptoms of a migraine.

Migraine headaches are usually associated with sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. In addition, many patients experience nausea or vomiting. The headache of a migraine often involves only one side of the head but in some cases, patients may experience pain bilaterally or on both sides. The pain of a migraine is often described as throbbing or pounding and it may be made worse with physical exertion.

In some cases, patients with migraines experience specific warning symptoms, or an aura, prior to the onset of their headache. These warning symptoms can range from flashing lights or a blind spot in one eye to numbness or weakness involving one side of the body. The aura may last for several minutes, and then resolves as the head pain begins or may last until the headache resolves. For patients who have never experienced an aura, the symptoms can be frightening and can mimic the symptoms of a stroke.

Not all headaches represent migraines, and migraine is not the only condition that can cause severe and debilitating headaches. For example, cluster headaches are very severe headaches that affect one side of the head in a recurrent manner (occurring in a "cluster" over time). The pain is sometimes described as "drilling," and can be worse than migraine pain in some cases. Cluster headaches are less common than migraine.

Tension headaches are a more common cause of headache. Thee occur due to contraction of the muscles of the scalp, face, and neck.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/14/2015

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Women with migraine headache attack

Migraine Symptoms

In general, symptoms of a migraine attack include:

  • moderate-to-severe, throbbing pain in the head, eye pain
  • most commonly one-sided pain; less frequently both sides of the head are affected
  • pain located near the eye on affected side
  • pain that worsens with exertion or physical activity
  • sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • nausea or vomiting
  • debilitating pain that hinders daily activities
  • untreated attacks most commonly last from 4 to 72 hours, but may persist for weeks