Migraines are severe headaches that can be debilitating. A migraine is more than a headache, and can include sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, as well as nausea and vomiting. In some cases, people experience an aura or visual disturbances. Migraines are usually treated with pain medication, but due to their frequent and recurring nature, overuse of medication is a concern.

Migraines generally don’t get worse over time, but they can lead to more serious complications.

The International Headache Society created a system for classifying headaches and migraines and their complications, known as the ICHD-3. Some of these include:

Status Migrainosus

This rare and severe migraine with aura lasts for longer than 72 hours. Some people have been hospitalized due to the intense pain.

Migrainous Infarction

This is when a migraine is associated with stroke. Typically, this is a migraine headache with an aura that lasts more than an hour. Sometimes, the aura is present even when the headache disappears. An aura that lasts longer than an hour can be a sign of bleeding in the brain. If you have a migraine with an aura that lasts more than an hour, see your doctor right away.

Persistent Aura Without Infarction

This complication arises if an aura lasts for more than a week after a migraine has ended. This complication has similar symptoms to migrainous infarction, but there is no bleeding in the brain. See your doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis.


This is a condition where an epileptic seizure is triggered by a migraine. Typically the seizure will occur within an hour after a migraine. This condition is rare.


A stroke occurs when blood supply to your brain is cut off or blocked by a blood clot or fatty material in your arteries. According to England’s National Health Service, people who have migraines have about twice the risk of having a stroke, and women with migraines who take oral contraceptives also have a greater risk of stroke. The reasons for this are not fully understood.

Mental Health Issues

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, migraines have been associated with a small increased risk of:

  • major depression
  • general anxiety disorder, GAD
  • bipolar disorder
  • panic disorder
  • substance abuse disorders
  • agoraphobia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD

Other Complications

Migraines can also bring on episodic syndromes including motion sickness, sleepwalking, sleep talking, night terrors, and teeth grinding. Additionally, migraines can bring on abdominal pain, cyclical vomiting, and vertigo.

Because migraines recur, people frequently overuse pain medications. Here are some complications to watch out for when treating migraines:

Abdominal Problems

Common pain relievers may cause abdominal pain and bleeding if you take them in large doses or for a long period of time. These include NSAIDS, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen, such as Advil, Motrin IB, and others.

Medication Overuse Headache (Rebound Headache)

Continual, long-term use of medications used to treat migraines can cause a rebound headache, also known as a medication overuse headache. This can lead to a cycle where taking too much medication causes a rebound headache, which then necessitates taking more medication, which causes worse headaches, and so on.

As a general guideline, over-the-counter medication should not be used more than 10 times per month. If you use painkillers, ergotamines, or triptans to relieve migraine symptoms, you should keep a record of when you take them and consult your doctor if you exceed 10 doses per month.

Some NSAIDS and other medications include caffeine. Caffeine intake in particular should be watched because overuse and then withdrawal can lead to a “caffeine headache,” compounding your migraine.

Generally, rebound headaches will go away once you stop taking the pain medication. But it’s important to consult with your doctor before you adjust any of your medication regimens.

Serotonin Syndrome

Serotonin is a chemical in your nervous system associated with regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin syndrome is a rare condition caused by too much serotonin in your brain. Taking a combination of certain migraine medications, like triptans, and antidepressants, specifically serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can cause your serotonin levels to rise.

Symptoms include:

  • agitation
  • confusion
  • heavy sweating
  • diarrhea
  • rapid heart rate
  • muscle twitching

If you experience any of these symptoms within a few hours of taking a new medication or a higher dose of a medication, go to the emergency room immediately. Untreated, serotonin syndrome can lead to irregular heartbeat, seizures, and even death.

Pain medication isn’t the only way to treat a migraine. Some other simple things you can do to relieve headache pain are:

  • lie down in a quiet, dark room
  • place a cold cloth over your forehead or behind your neck
  • massage your scalp or temples

Read More: Migraine Herbal Home Remedies from Around the World »

Sometimes the best treatment method for migraines is trying to prevent them in the first place. This is not always possible, but there are triggers to look out for. These include certain foods, activities, smells, and environments.

Talk to your doctor about avoiding these foods:

  • pickled foods
  • MSG
  • chocolate
  • aged cheese
  • hot dogs
  • onions
  • diet soda
  • alcohol
  • beverages high in caffeine

Skipping meals can also lead to migraines.

Additionally, try to avoid these triggers:

  • stress
  • lack of sleep or jet lag
  • food additives
  • hunger or dehydration
  • odd smells
  • bright lights and loud sounds

You should keep a migraine journal to note any specific triggers and instances when you get a migraine. You may notice a pattern.

Although there are complications associated with migraines and migraine treatments, they don’t have to ruin your life. Migraine pain can be managed and prevented. Remember to use medication according to instructions and in moderation. Also, consider using alternative therapies to treat migraines. As always, speak to your doctor about severe or recurring pain to properly diagnose migraines, and be sure to bring any questions or concerns you may have.