Migraine Headache

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

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.

Headache Pictures Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Migraine Headaches

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

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Migraine - Triggers Question: What are your migraine headache triggers?
Migraine - Symptoms Question: What migraine headache symptoms do you experience?
Migraine - Treatment Question: What kind of treatment do you get for your migraines? Does it help?
Migraine - Relief Question: Do self-care measures give you relief from your migraine headaches? What do you do?
Migraine Headache - Causes Question: Discuss the triggers for your migraine headaches.

Migraine Headache Treatment

There are many treatments for migraine headaches. Drugs are used but some treatments do not use drugs. Nondrug treatments include:

  • ice to the head,
  • biofeedback,
  • adequate sleep,
  • smoking cessation, and
  • avoidance of your food and environmental triggers (for example, stress, flashing lights, and drinking red wine).

Others recommend natural treatments such as:

  • herbs,
  • acupressure,
  • aromatherapy,
  • group therapy, and
  • many others.