If you suffer from migraine headaches, you're not alone. About 12% of the U.S. population experience migraines.

Migraine headaches are characterized by throbbing and pulsating pain caused by the activation of nerve fibers that reside within the wall of brain blood vessels traveling within the meninges. 

Woman with migraine

Migraines headaches are recurrent attacks of moderate to severe pain that is throbbing or pulsing and often strikes one side of the head. Untreated attacks last from 4 to 72 hours.

Other common symptoms are increased sensitivity to light, noise, and odors; and nausea and vomiting. Routine physical activity, movement, or even coughing or sneezing can worsen the headache pain.

Migraines occur most frequently in the morning, especially upon waking. Some people have migraines at predictable times, such as before menstruation or on weekends following a stressful week of work.

Many people feel exhausted or weak following a migraine but are usually symptom-free between attacks.

Triggers

A number of different factors can increase your risk of having a migraine.

These factors, which trigger the headache process, vary from person to person and include:

  • sudden changes in weather or environment
  • too much or not enough sleep
  • strong odors or fumes
  • emotions,  stress or overexertion
  • loud or sudden noises
  • motion sickness
  • low blood sugar
  • skipped meals
  • tobacco
  • depression or anxiety
  • head trauma
  • hangover
  • some medications
  • hormonal changes,
  • bright or flashing lights.

Medication overuse or missed doses may also cause headaches.

In some 50 percent of migraine sufferers, foods or ingredients can trigger headaches. These include:

  • aspartame
  • caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal)
  • wine and other types of alcohol
  • chocolate
  • aged cheeses
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • some fruits and nuts
  • fermented or pickled goods
  • yeast
  • cured or processed meats.
Keeping a diet journal will help identify food triggers.

Who Gets Migraines? 

Migraines occur in both children and adults, but affect adult women three times more often than men.

There is evidence that migraines are genetic, with most migraine sufferers having a family history of the disorder. They also frequently occur in people who have other medical conditions. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and epilepsy are more common in individuals with migraine than in the general population. Migraine sufferers-in particular those individuals who have pre-migraine symptoms referred to as aura-have a slightly increased risk of having a stroke.

Migraine in women often relates to changes in hormones. The headaches may begin at the start of the first menstrual cycle or during pregnancy. Most women see improvement after menopause, although surgical removal of the ovaries usually worsens migraines. Women with migraine who take oral contraceptives may experience changes in the frequency and severity of attacks, while women who do not suffer from headaches may develop migraines as a side effect of oral contraceptives.

Phases of Migraine

Migraine is divided into four phases, all of which may be present during the attack:

  • Premonitory symptoms occur up to 24 hours prior to developing a migraine. These include food cravings, unexplained mood changes (depression or euphoria), uncontrollable yawning, fluid retention, or increased urination.
  • Aura. Some people will see flashing or bright lights or what looks like heat waves immediately prior to or during the migraine, while others may experience muscle weakness or the sensation of being touched or grabbed.
  • Headache. A migraine usually starts gradually and builds in intensity. It is possible to have migraine without a headache.
  • Postdrome (following the headache). Individuals are often exhausted or confused following a migraine. The postdrome period may last up to a day before people feel healthy.

Types of Migraine

The two major types of migraine are:

  • Migraine with aura, previously called classic migraine, includes visual disturbances and other neurological symptoms that appear about 10 to 60 minutes before the actual headache and usually last no more than an hour. Individuals may temporarily lose part or all of their vision. The aura may occur without headache pain, which can strike at any time. Other classic symptoms include trouble speaking; an abnormal sensation, numbness, or muscle weakness on one side of the body; a tingling sensation in the hands or face, and confusion. Nausea, loss of appetite, and increased sensitivity to light, sound, or noise may precede the headache.
  • Migraine without aura, or common migraine, is the more frequent form of migraine. Symptoms include headache pain that occurs without warning and is usually felt on one side of the head, along with nausea, confusion, blurred vision, mood changes, fatigue, and increased sensitivity to light, sound, or noise.

Other types of migraine include:

  • Abdominal migraine mostly affects young children and involves moderate to severe pain in the middle of the abdomen lasting 1 to 72 hours, with little or no headache. Additional symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Many children who develop abdominal migraine will have migraine headaches later in life.
  • Basilar-type migraine mainly affects children and adolescents. It occurs most often in teenage girls and may be associated with their menstrual cycle. Symptoms include partial or total loss of vision or double vision, dizziness and loss of balance, poor muscle coordination, slurred speech, a ringing in the ears, and fainting. The throbbing pain may come on suddenly and is felt on both sides at the back of the head.
  • Hemiplegic migraine is a rare but severe form of migraine that causes temporary paralysis-sometimes lasting several days-on one side of the body prior to or during a headache. Symptoms such as vertigo, a pricking or stabbing sensation, and problems seeing, speaking, or swallowing may begin prior to the headache pain and usually stop shortly thereafter. When it runs in families the disorder is called Familial Hemiplegic Migraine (FHM). Though rare, at least three distinct genetic forms of FHM have been identified. These genetic mutations make the brain more sensitive or excitable, most likely by increasing brain levels of a chemical called glutamate.
  • Menstrually-related migraine affects women around the time of their period, although most women with menstrually-related migraine also have migraines at other times of the month. Symptoms may include migraine without aura (which is much more common during menses than migraine with aura), pulsing pain on one side of the head, nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to sound and light.
  • Migraine without headache is characterized by visual problems or other aura symptoms, nausea, vomiting, and constipation, but without head pain. Headache specialists have suggested that fever, dizziness, and/or unexplained pain in a particular part of the body could also be possible types of headache-free migraine.
  • Ophthalmoplegic migraine an uncommon form of migraine with head pain, along with a droopy eyelid, large pupil, and double vision that may last for weeks, long after the pain is gone.
  • Retinal migraine is a condition characterized by attacks of visual loss or disturbances in one eye. These attacks, like the more common visual auras, are usually associated with migraine headaches.
  • Status migrainosus is a rare and severe type of acute migraine in which disabling pain and nausea can last 72 hours or longer. The pain and nausea may be so intense that sufferers need to be hospitalized.

Migraine Treatment

Migraine treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks.

Quick steps to ease symptoms may include napping or resting with eyes closed in a quiet, darkened room; placing a cool cloth or ice pack on the forehead, and drinking lots of fluid, particularly if the migraine is accompanied by vomiting. Small amounts of caffeine may help relieve symptoms during a migraine's early stages.

Drug therapy for migraine is divided into acute and preventive treatment.

Acute or "abortive" medications are taken as soon as symptoms occur to relieve pain and restore function. Preventive treatment involves taking medicines daily to reduce the severity of future attacks or keep them from happening.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a variety of drugs for these treatment methods. The FDA has approved the drugs enenmab (Aimovig) for the preventive treatment of headache and galcanezumab-gnlm (Emgality) injections to treat episodic cluster headache. Enenmab blocks the activity of calcitonin gene-related peptide, a molecule that is involved in migraine attacks. The FDA also has approved lasmiditan (Reyvow) and ubrogepant (Ubrelvy) tablets for short-term treatment of migraine with our without aura. Headache drug use should be monitored by a physician, since some drugs may cause side effects.

Acute treatment for migraine may include any of the following drugs.

  • Triptan drugs increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin causes blood vessels to constrict and lowers the pain threshold. Triptans-the preferred treatment for migraine-ease moderate to severe migraine pain and are available as tablets, nasal sprays, and injections.
  • Ergot derivative drugs bind to serotonin receptors on nerve cells and decrease the transmission of pain messages along nerve fibers. They are most effective during the early stages of migraine and are available as nasal sprays and injections.
  • Non-prescription analgesics or over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen can ease the pain of less severe migraine headache.
  • Combination analgesics involve a mix of drugs such as acetaminophen plus caffeine and/or a narcotic for migraine that may be resistant to simple analgesics.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.
  • Nausea relief drugs can ease queasiness brought on by various types of headache.
  • Narcotics are prescribed briefly to relieve pain. These drugs should not be used to treat chronic headaches.

Medication Overuse Headache

Taking headache relief drugs more than three times a week may lead to medication overuse headache (previously called rebound headache), in which the initial headache is relieved temporarily but reappears as the drug wears off.

Taking more of the drug to treat the new headache leads to progressively shorter periods of pain relief and results in a pattern of recurrent chronic headache. Headache pain ranges from moderate to severe and may occur with nausea or irritability. It may take weeks for these headaches to end once the drug is stopped.

Medications to Prevent Migraine

Everyone with migraine needs effective treatment at the time of the headaches. Some people with frequent and severe migraine need preventive medications. In general, prevention should be considered if migraines occur one or more times weekly, or if migraines are less frequent but disabling. Preventive medicines are also recommended for individuals who take symptomatic headache treatment more than three times a week.

Physicians will also recommend that a migraine sufferer take one or more preventive medications two to three months to assess drug effectiveness, unless intolerable side effects occur.

Several preventive medicines for migraine were initially marketed for conditions other than migraine.

  • Anticonvulsants may be helpful for people with other types of headaches in addition to migraine. Although they were originally developed for treating epilepsy, these drugs increase levels of certain neurotransmitters and dampen pain impulses.
  • Beta-blockers are drugs for treating high blood pressure that are often effective for migraine.
  • Calcium channel blockers are medications that are also used to treat high blood pressure treatment and help to stabilize blood vessel walls. These drugs appear to work by preventing the blood vessels from either narrowing or widening, which affects blood flow to the brain.
  • Antidepressants are drugs that work on different chemicals in the brain; their effectiveness in treating migraine is not directly related to their effect on mood. Antidepressants may be helpful for individuals with other types of headaches because they increase the production of serotonin and may also affect levels of other chemicals, such as norepinephrine and dopamine. The types of antidepressants used for migraine treatment include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and tricyclic antidepressants (which are also used to treat tension-type headaches).

Non-Drug Therapy for Migraine

Non-drug therapy for migraine includes biofeedback and relaxation training, both of which help individuals cope with or control the development of pain and the body's response to stress.

Natural treatments for migraine include riboflavin (vitamin B2), magnesium, coenzyme Q10, and butterbur.

Lifestyle changes that reduce or prevent migraine attacks in some individuals include exercising, avoiding food and beverages that trigger headaches, eating regularly scheduled meals with adequate hydration, stopping certain medications, and establishing a consistent sleep schedule. Obesity increases the risk of developing chronic daily headache, so a weight loss program is recommended for obese individuals.


Reference: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Last updated April 2020

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

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