Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at March 10, 2016

A migraine is a type of headache that usually comes along with other symptoms, such as nausea, light sensitivity, or noise sensitivity. Migraines can vary in severity. In many cases, persistent migraines will need prescription medication or a lifestyle change in order to reduce intensity and frequency.


Definition & Facts

A migraine is usually defined as a throbbing headache that is targeted in one area of the head. The pain of a migraine can last a few hours or in some cases even days. Most migraines will affect the body in multiple ways, including making the individual feel nauseous or causing them to be more sensitive to light and sound.

Some migraines may also give the individual a "warning sign" that a serious headache is on the way. These warning signs may include an aura, which can include a flash of light or blind spots. For some individuals, an aura is similar to staring at a light for too long, causing them to see dark patches in their line of vision. Other individuals may experience a tingling in their arms or legs that they can take as a warning that a migraine is on the way.

The severity of a migraine will depend on the individual, the causes, and how quickly the migraine is treated. Some individuals find that they can cope throughout the day with a migraine while others will need to seek a dark, quiet room in order to get any sort of comfort.

Symptoms & Complaints

Unlike regular headaches, migraines have various stages, each with their own symptoms. Not everyone will experience each of the stages of a migraine and they may have different symptoms associated with that particular stage.

The four stages of a migraine include: prodrome, aura, attack, and postdrome. The prodrome stage can occur a day or two before the migraine sets in, and can be characterized by feelings of depression, neck stiffness, depression, food cravings, or irritability.

The next phase, aura, does not occur for most people, but can be characterized as disturbances in sight, movement, speech, or sensations. For those who experience the aura phase of a migraine, they may see shapes, have a loss of vision, have problems speaking, or feel pins and needle sensations in their arms or legs. The aura phase usually only lasts 20 to 60 minutes. The next phase of symptoms for a migraine is the attack.

When experiencing a migraine attack, most people will feel pain in their head, have more sensitive senses, blurred vision, vomiting or nausea, and lightheadedness; they may faint. The attack is the phase most commonly associated with migraines and can last up to 72 hours. Postdrome, the phase that occurs after the attack phase, is usually a period of exhaustion after the migraine has subsided.


Migraines can be caused by both genetic factors and environmental factors. Some people are more susceptible to getting migraines while others may go their entire lives without ever experiencing a true migraine. Migraines can be caused by a drop in serotonin in the brain, hormonal changes, certain foods or drinks, stress, certain sensory stimuli such as a bright light or loud sound, or certain medications.

Diagnosis & Tests

If migraines are not consistent, they typically don't need to be diagnosed by a medical professional, especially if the migraine is believed to have been caused by an environmental change. If migraines are persistent or an individual has a family history of migraines, visiting a neurologist to determine the cause of the migraines can be helpful for delivering the right treatment.

To determine a reason for the migraines, a neurologist may advise the individual to go through a blood test, a CT scan, MRI, or a spinal tap. Each one of these tests allows the doctor to get a better understanding of the fluids in the brain or spine, or look for abnormalities like tumors that may be causing the migraines. From there, the doctor will be able to narrow down the cause of the migraine or eliminate potential triggers.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment for migraines includes the use of pain relievers. If the individual has a mild migraine, simple painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen may be able to stop it from developing further. If the individual experiences frequent migraines, a doctor may be able to prescribe a stronger pain reliever well as anti-nausea medications.

Migraines can be prevented through drugs that seem completely unrelated to headaches, such as antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, or Botox®. These preventative measures are usually reserved for people who experience many migraine headaches that diminish their quality of life and make it difficult to complete daily activities.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

For those suffering from migraines, there are a few steps one can take to reduce the number and severity of migraines. The first step is recognizing what triggers the migraine and to avoid those triggers as much as possible. Keeping a journal of day-to-day activities and including whether or not a migraine occurred can help identify which foods or events trigger migraines.

Migraines can also be reduced or prevented by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and regulating estrogen for those women who are prone to migraines.

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