What is a Migraine Headache?
Migraine headaches are a medical condition. Most people
who suffer from migraines get headaches that can be quite
severe. A migraine headache is usually an intense, throbbing
pain on one, or sometimes, both sides of the head. Most
people with migraine headache feel the pain in the temples
or behind one eye or ear, although any part of the head
can be involved. Besides pain, migraine also can cause nausea
and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people
also may see spots or flashing lights or have a temporary
loss of vision.
Migraine pain can occur any time of the day, though
it often starts in the morning. The pain can last a few
hours or up to one or two days. Some people get migraines
once or twice a week. Others, only once or twice a year.
Most of the time, migraines are not a threat to your overall
health. But migraine attacks can interfere with your day-to-day
We don’t know what causes migraine,
but some things are more common in people who have them:
Most often, migraine affects people
between the ages of 15 and 55.
Most people have a family history of
migraine or of disabling headache.
Migraines are more common in women.
Migraine often becomes less severe
and less frequent with age.
How common are Migraine Headaches?
Migraine pain and symptoms affect 29.5 million
Americans. Migraine is the most common form of disabling
headache that sends patients to see their doctors.
What Causes Migraines?
The exact cause of migraine is not fully
understood. Most researchers think that migraine is due
to abnormal changes in levels of substances that are naturally
produced in the brain. When the levels of these substances
increase, they can cause inflammation. This inflammation
then causes blood vessels in the brain to swell and press
on nearby nerves, causing pain.
Genes also have been linked to migraine. People
who get migraines may have abnormal genes that control the
functions of certain brain cells.
Experts do know that people with migraines
react to a variety of factors and events, called triggers.
These triggers can vary from person to person and don’t
always lead to migraine. A combination of triggers—not
a single thing or event—is more likely to set off
an attack. A person’s response to triggers also can
vary from migraine to migraine. Many women with migraine
tend to have attacks triggered by:
lack of or too much sleep
bright lights, loud noises, or strong
hormone changes during the menstrual
stress and anxiety, or relaxation after
alcohol (often red wine)
caffeine (too much or withdrawal)
foods that contain nitrates, such as
hot dogs and lunch meats
foods that contain MSG (monosodium
glutamate), a flavor enhancer found in fast foods, broths,
seasonings, and spices
foods that contain tyramine, such as
aged cheeses, soy products, fava beans, hard sausages,
smoked fish, and Chianti wine
aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®)
To pinpoint your migraine triggers, keep
a headache diary. Each day you have a migraine headache,
put that in your diary. Also write down the:
the time of day your headache started
where you were and what you were doing
when the migraine headache started
what you ate or drank 24 hours before
each day you have your period, not
just the first day (This can allow you and your doctor
to see if your headaches occur at the same or similar
time as your period.)
Talk with your doctor about what sets
off your headaches to help find the right treatment.
Are there Different Kinds of Migraines?
There are many forms of migraine. The two
forms seen most often are migraine with aura and migraine
Migraine with aura - previously called classical
migraine. With a migraine with aura, a person might have
these sensory symptoms - or the so-called “aura”
- 10 to 30 minutes before an attack:
seeing flashing lights, zigzag lines,
or blind spots
numbness; or tingling in the face or
disturbed sense of smell, taste, or
feeling mentally “fuzzy”
Only one in five people who get migraine
experience an aura. Women have this form of migraine less
often than men.
Migraine without aura - previously called
common migraine. With this form of migraine, a person does
not have an aura but has all the other features of an attack.