A migraine is a headache disorder that generally affects one side of the head and causes intense pain. These throbbing, severe headaches are usually accompanied by nausea and vomiting. They may also cause acute sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine headache episodes can last anywhere from hours to days, and the pain might be severe enough to prevent you from going about your normal activities.
A warning sign (known as an aura) may appear before or with the headache. Symptoms of a migraine aura include visual phenomena, such as flashes of light or blind patches, a tingling sensation on one side of the body, or trouble speaking.
Migraines are broken into four stages - also known as phases - that correspond with various symptoms. Not everyone who experiences migraines experiences all four phases. Every migraine episode is different and may vary in severity. The four stages of migraine are detailed below.
This preliminary stage - also known as preheadache - may last for several hours or days prior to the migraine. You may experience symptoms such as:
- Mood changes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent yawning
- Muscle stiffness
- Increased urination
An aura may occur before or during a migraine and may last for 5-60 minutes. Most individuals do not experience an aura, or, if they do, it occurs simultaneously with the headache. Common symptoms of the aura stage include:
- Visual phenomena such as bright spots, flashing lights, or blind spots in your vision
- Tingling or needling sensations in your arms or legs
- Facial pain or weakness
- Difficulty with speech
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
The headache symptoms of migraines usually last for 4 to 72 hours. The severity of these symptoms will vary from person to person and attack to attack, but common effects include:
- Pain on one or both sides of the head
- Sensitivity to light, sound, and smell
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Dizziness or blurred vision
Also known as a migraine hangover, the post-drome stage begins after the major symptoms of the headache attack have dissipated. Common feelings associated with the post-drome stage include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of depression
- Feelings of euphoria or elation
- Recurring pain after sudden head movements
There is no singular cause of migraines. Neurology researchers continue to study the role that various brain chemicals and hormones play in causing migraines.
Some triggers that may cause a migraine episode include:
- Hormone changes in women
- Daily use of pain management medication or headache medication
- Caffeine use
- Sensitivity to light or loud sounds
- Sensitivity to food additives or ingredients (such as aged cheese, nitrates, or alcohol)
- Changes in weather conditions
- Exhaustion or physical overexertion
- Dieting or missing meals
This is not a complete list of all triggers. Some migraine patients may experience symptoms without exposure to any of these triggers. Work with your primary care provider or a migraine specialist (such as a neurologist) to help determine what triggers may cause your headaches and craft a treatment plan to reduce your risk of migraine episodes.
Migraine Risk Factors
Just as there is no common cause of migraines, there is also no singular risk factor that determines whether or not you may experience migraines. However, headache specialists and health care providers believe that certain circumstances might make you more at risk for developing migraine headaches.
These risk factors include:
Genetics: 80% of individuals who experience migraines also have a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) who also experiences this headache disorder.
Sex: According to the Mayo Clinic, women are three times more likely than men to experience migraines. Additionally, hormone changes that occur in women before or after menstruation, as well as those during pregnancy and menopause, can lead to migraine symptoms.
Age: Migraines often peak when an individual is in their mid-30s. Early episodes of migraines may appear in adolescence. As an individual grows older, these symptoms tend to become less severe and frequent.