A migraine isn’t just an average headache. Migraines are strong, pounding headaches on one or both sides of the head and typically include several other symptoms. They’re sometimes preceded by warning symptoms called aura, which may include flashes of light, visual ‘floaters,’ or tingling sensations in your arms and legs.
A migraine episode can last for hours or days and can greatly affect your everyday life. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, roughly 12 percent of the U.S. adult population gets migraines, which are caused by the activation of nerve fibers in the blood vessels of the brain.
For ‘classical migraine’ sufferers, each migraine evolves through four separate stages, each with different symptoms. These stages include:
- the prodrome (also known as premonitory) stage
- the aura (visual symptoms or tingling)
- the headache or main attack stage
- the postdrome (or recovery) stage
Not all migraine sufferers will experience all of the stages.
The premonitory or prodrome stage typically occurs one to two days before a migraine begins. Subtle changes can signify that a migraine is about to come on. Symptoms may include the following:
- mood changes such as anxiety or depression
- craving for sugary foods
- stiff neck
- frequent yawning
The aura stage occurs right before or during a migraine. Auras are usually visual disturbances but sometimes involve other sensations. Symptoms build up gradually and last for about 20 minutes to one hour. About 15 percent of people experience aura during a migraine, according to the Migraine Trust.
Symptoms of an aura may include:
- seeing bright spots or flashes of light
- vision loss or seeing dark spots
- tingling sensations in an arm or leg described as “pins and needles”
- speech problems or inability to speak (aphasia)
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
The attack stage includes the headache and other symptoms. It may last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
During an attack, you might experience the following symptoms:
- pulsating or throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head
- extreme sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells
- worsening pain during physical activity
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain or heartburn
- loss of appetite
- pale skin
- blurred vision
Someone with a migraine often needs to lie down in the dark and quiet to escape from light, sounds, and movement. This is one of the main differences between migraines and other kinds of headaches. Many people find that sleeping for an hour or two can be enough to end an attack.
During the recovery stage, also called the postdrome stage, you may feel tired and drained. The migraine fades slowly. Some people report feelings of euphoria.
The pain experienced during a migraine can be severe, often unbearable. The Migraine Trust finds that depression is three times more likely to occur in migraine sufferers than in people who don’t get migraines. There are medications and other treatments available to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. If you regularly get migraines, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms, as well as to arrive at a treatment plan.