How do I know if my headache is a migraine?
How can you tell if that throbbing headache is really a migraine? Only about 15% to 20% of migraine sufferers experience the classic "auras"-- the visual, auditory, or olfactory perceptions or other neurological symptoms -- known to occur 15 to 30 minutes prior to an attack. Auras most commonly involve visual changes including tunnel vision or temporary blind spots. A band of absent vision with a shimmering, zigzagged border (scintillating scotoma) is a common visual change seen with migraine aura. While severe head pain is the hallmark of the condition, the manifestations of migraine may vary widely from individual to individual.
What are the symptoms of a migraine?
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
Who gets migraines?
Most experts now agree that the term migraine should be used to refer to a chronic, recurrent neurological condition resulting in periodic attacks of head pain rather than the headache itself. A recent review of the medical literature published in the British Medical Journal found that migraine sufferers were over twice as likely to experience a stroke than those who don't have migraine attacks, supporting earlier theories that the altered blood circulation in the brain during migraine attacks may lead to physiological damage.
The most common cause of headache in young adults, up to 25% of women in their mid-to-late thirties suffer from this condition. Over 28 million Americans have been diagnosed with migraine, which is three times more common in women than in men.
If you believe you may have migraine, you can help your doctor by keeping a diary of your head pain. Noting the time of day that head pain occurs, its duration, severity, and character, along with any accompanying symptoms or precipitating factors can help your doctor more accurately determine whether your headaches result from migraine disease.
Medically reviewed by Joseph Carcione, DO; American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
Chawla, J., et al. "Migraine Headache." Medscape. 23 Dec. 2013.