Migraine Headaches

This often severe, throbbing type
of headache is different from other types of headaches. Symptoms other than pain can
occur with a migraine headache. Nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness, sensitivity to
light (photophobia), and other visual changes are common. A migraine headache may last
from 4 to 72 hours.

Migraines are also unique in that
they have distinct phases. But not all people have each phase. The phases of a migraine
headache may include:

  • Premonition phase. A change in mood
    or behavior may occur hours or days before the headache.
  • Aura phase. About one-third of people
    who have migraine headaches describe having an unusual “feeling” or aura before the
    headache. The aura phase includes visual, sensory, or motor symptoms that occur just
    before the headache. Examples are hallucinations, numbness, changes in speech, visual
    changes, and muscle weakness. Migraine sufferers may or may not have an aura before
    the start of the headache.


  • Headache phase. This is the period
    during the actual headache. Throbbing pain occurs on one or both sides of the head.
    Sensitivity to light and motion is common. So, too, are depression, fatigue, and
  • Headache resolution phase. Pain
    lessens during this phase. But it may be replaced with fatigue, irritability, and
    trouble concentrating. Some people feel refreshed after an attack, while others do

Headaches are classified as with or without aura.

Experts are not certain what causes a migraine headache. Many experts think an imbalance in brain chemicals, such as serotonin, and changes in nerve pathways are involved. Migraines may also run in families suggesting a genetic link.

These are the most common symptoms
of migraine headaches:

  • Throbbing, severe headache pain with a
    specific location either on one side or both
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Visual changes, such as a flashing
    light or even lack of sight, for a short period of time
  • A change in mood or behavior hours or
    days before the headache
  • Depression, fatigue, or anxiety
  • Fatigue, irritability, and
    trouble concentrating as the headache goes away

These symptoms may look like other
health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Migraine headaches are diagnosed
based on your symptoms and a physical exam.

Tracking and sharing information
about your headache with your healthcare provider helps with the diagnosis. Write down
the following:

  • Time of day when your headaches
  • Specific location of your
  • How your headaches feel
  • How long your headaches last
  • Any changes in behavior or
  • Effect of changes in position or
    activities on the headache
  • Effect of headaches on sleep
  • Level of stress in your life
  • Details about any head trauma, either
    recently or in the past

If you have unusual symptoms or
the findings from your exam aren’t normal, your healthcare provider may want you to have
other tests or procedures. These can rule out underlying diseases or health problems.
These tests include:

  • Blood tests. Various blood chemistry
    and other lab tests may be used to check for underlying health problems.
  • Sinus X-rays. This X-ray checks for
    congestion or other problems linked to the headaches.
  • MRI. This test uses a combination of
    large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and
  • CT scan. This test uses X-rays and
    computer technology to make images of the body or head. CT scans show more detail
    than standard X-rays.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). A
    special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal, which is the
    area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be
    measured. A small amount of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for
    testing to check if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that
    surrounds the brain and spinal cord.


Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on
how severe the condition is.

Certain medicines can help treat or
prevent migraine headaches:

  • Abortive medicines. These medicines
    are prescribed by your healthcare provider. They act on specific receptors in both
    the brain and the blood vessels in the head, stopping a headache once it has
  • Rescue medicines. These are
    medicines purchased over-the-counter, such as pain relievers, to lessen or stop the
  • Preventive (prophylactic) medicines.
    These medicines are prescribed by your healthcare provider. They are taken
    regularly to stop the start of severe migraine headaches.

Complications of migraine headaches may include:

  • Severe headache pain, often in one part of your head, such as near one eye
  • Potential nausea and vomiting
  • Immobility and lack of activity
    because of severe pain
  • Loss of work time and personal time

The goal of treatment is to prevent
migraines from occurring. You can help do that by:

  • Staying away from known triggers, such
    as certain foods and beverages like caffeine, lack of sleep, and fasting
  • Changing eating habits
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Sticking to a regular sleep schedule
  • Resting in a quiet, dark place
  • Taking medicines, as advised by your
    healthcare provider
  • Managing stress
  • Getting therapeutic massage
  • Taking prescribed medicine when you
    have an aura

Some headaches may require care right away, including going to the
hospital for observation, and diagnostic testing. Call your healthcare provider right
away if you have a migraine headache with:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Convulsion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Muscular weakness
  • Double vision
  • Change in level of consciousness
  • A migraine is a severe, throbbing type of headache.
  • Nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness, sensitivity to light (photophobia), and other visual disturbances are common migraine symptoms.
  • A migraine headache may last from 4 to 72 hours.
  • Preventing a migraine headache is
    often the most helpful approach for treatment.
  • Migraine headaches can have a
    predictable pattern. It can help you notice and treat them appropriately.
  • Many people have an aura before a
    migraine. Treatment may help at that time.
  • Managing stress and getting regular exercise may help prevent or lessen the occurrence of migraine headaches.

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.