What is a migraine headache?

A migraine headache is an intense, painful headache. Migraine headaches are often accompanied by additional symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound. Most migraines last four to 72 hours, but symptoms of the headache may last longer.

More than 12 percent of Americans, or 36 million people, suffer from migraines, according to the National Headache Foundation. (1) Each person’s migraine experience is different: Migraines can last several hours or several days. Some people experience a migraine one or more times a week, and others may have a migraine once a year. Some people are able to function despite the headache, while for others, the condition is debilitating.

Who is at risk for a migraine headache?

The risk factors for migraine headache include:

  • Age. Most people will experience their first migraine headache before or during adolescence.
  • Family history. Migraine headaches can be hereditary. More than 75 percent of people who suffer from migraine headaches have a parent or sibling who has migraines. (2)
  • Gender. Women are three times more likely to have migraine headaches than men. Women who have migraine headaches have more frequent migraines compared to men who experience migraines. (2)

What causes a migraine headache?

Researchers and doctors do not understand exactly what causes a migraine headache. They have identified common risk factors and the most frequent migraine triggers, but research has been unable to identify the mechanisms in the body and brain that cause some people to have migraine headaches but not others.

Recently, a common gene mutation was discovered among people with frequent migraines. This gene is responsible for keeping some nerve cells relaxed. The mutation identified by doctors appears to keep the nerves stimulated, which sets off a migraine. Currently, researchers are trying to understand how this gene mutation, as well as other possible gene mutations, affects the brain and what can be done to reverse the effects of the mutation. (4)

What are the symptoms of a migraine headache?

Many people who suffer from migraines will experience three phases of symptoms: before the migraine (prodrome), during the migraine, and after the migraine.

A few days or hours before a migraine begins, you may experience the prodrome, early signs of an impending migraine. The most common symptoms experienced during prodrome include:

  • constipation
  • hyperactivity
  • mood swings, including depression and irritability
  • neck stiffness

The most common symptoms of a migraine attack include:

  • blurry vision
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • pain on one or both sides of your head
  • pain in your face, jaw, or neck
  • sensitivity to lights, smells, and sounds
  • temperature swings—sweating or being cold suddenly
  • throbbing, pulsating pain in your head
  • vomiting

Migraine with aura. More than 20 percent of people who experience migraine headaches also experience visual symptoms called aura. Auras often appear as flashing lights or blind spots in your vision field. An aura is a warning sign: Most aura symptoms begin 20 minutes to one hour before a migraine headache begins. (6)

What are common migraine triggers?

The cause of migraine headaches remains unknown, but migraine triggers—factors that increase a person’s chance for developing a migraine—are well known.

The most common migraine triggers include:

  • Bright lights, flashing lights, and fluorescent lights.
  • Caffeine. If you consume caffeine regularly, your body can develop a dependency on it. Without it, you begin to suffer withdrawals, and you may experience a migraine.
  • Food. Food additives like nitrates (a preservative in cured meats and cheeses) and flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate, which is commonly found in Chinese food, can trigger a migraine. Sugary foods and alcoholic beverages may, too.
  • Hormonal changes. Puberty, menstrual cycles, and menopause can increase a woman’s risk for experiencing a migraine.
  • Medication. Some medicines can trigger a migraine. Also, overuse of common headache medicine can make migraine headaches more frequent.
  • Missing or skipping meals.
  • Sleep cycle changes.
  • Stress. Stress causes chemical changes in your body and brain. These changes can increase muscle tension. This can increase your risk for a migraine and also increase the intensity of a migraine if one develops.
  • Weather. Shifts in temperature, barometric pressure, winds, and altitude can trigger a migraine.

 

How are migraine headaches treated?

Many methods can treat migraine headaches. The most common include:

Abortive medicines. Over-the-counter painkillers and migraine medicines can relieve a migraine and its accompanying symptoms. Prescription medications can also ease migraine headaches. Many of them are designed to act quickly—they’re often prepared as oral dissolving tablets, injectable medicines, or nasal sprays. However, overuse of these medicines can actually cause frequent migraines.

Preventive medicines. People who experience frequent or debilitating migraines may need to use preventive medicines to reduce the likelihood of an attack. These medicines are typically taken daily, even when a headache is not occurring.

Biofeedback. Biofeedback is a way of learning to control your migraine by controlling your body. With proper training, individuals learn to slow down the symptoms and hopefully reduce or end a migraine before it becomes severe. Biofeedback may help one learn to anticipate and react to migraines more quickly.