Migraine is a type of recurring headache. It involves nerves and brain chemicals. Other sensations (eg, auras) may come before a migraine headache.
There are two types of migraines:
- Occurring with an aura (formerly called "classic")
- Occurring without an aura (formerly called "common")
Migraine may happen several times a week or once every couple of years. They can be so severe that they interfere with the ability to work and carry on normal activities.
While the precise cause is not known, many potential triggers have been identified. Common triggers include:
- Environmental triggers (eg, odors, bright lights)
- Dietary triggers (eg, alcohol)
- Certain medications
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Physiologic changes (eg, menstruation, puberty)
- Weather changes
A trigger sets the process in motion. It is possible that the nervous system reacts to the trigger by conducting electrical activity. This spreads across the brain. It leads to the release of brain chemicals, which help regulate pain.
Migraines are more common in women and before the age of 40. Other factors that increase your chance for migraines may include:
- Family history of migraines
- Presence of patent foramen ovale—a congenital heart defect
Migraines occur in phases that may include:
A warning may come before a migraine. In the hours or days before the headache, symptoms may include:
- Changes in mood, behavior, and/or activity level
- Food craving or decreased appetite
- Nausea, diarrhea
- Sensitivity to light
The most common aura is visual. The aura lasts about 15-30 minutes. It may produce the following sensations:
- Flashing lights, spots, or zig zag lines
- Temporary, partial loss of vision
- Speech difficulties
- Weakness in an arm or leg
- Numbness or tingling in the face and hands
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Speech disturbances
- Cognitive dysfunction
Migraine pain starts within an hour of the aura ending. Symptoms include:
A headache (usually on one side but may involve both sides) that often feels:
- Moderate or severe intensity
- Throbbing or pulsating
- More severe with bright light, loud sound, or movement
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You may also be given a neurological exam.
To rule out other conditions your doctor may order tests, such as:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the head
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan —a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
- Blood tests
CT Scan of the Head
Migraine therapy aims to:
- Prevent headaches
- Reduce headache severity and frequency
- Restore your ability to function
- Improve quality of life
Treatment options include:
Pain medications are often needed to ease or stop the pain. Over-the-counter pain pills may ease mild symptoms.
Warning: Regular use of some over-the-counter medications may cause a rebound headache.
Some prescription medications act directly to stop the cause of the migraine headache. These include drugs that:
- Quiet nerve pathways
- Reduce inflammation
- Bind receptors for serotonin, a brain chemical
These drugs can be taken by mouth. They may act more quickly in forms that dissolve in the mouth, are inhaled through the nose, or injected. They are more likely to be helpful if taken as soon as possible at the start of a migraine. Your doctor can help you choose the medication best for you.
Medications that can help stop a migraine once it has begun include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
- Medications for nausea
- Combination medication that contains caffeine
Other drugs can help prevent migraines for people with frequent migraines. Preventive drugs are taken every day. Classes of preventative medications include:
- Calcium channel blockers
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin-II receptor blockers (ARBs)
Therapy may also be used to reduce the length and frequency of migraine headaches. It may be used with or without medication and may include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, or relaxation methods.
Botulinum Toxin Injections
Botulinum toxin injections may be used as a way to prevent migraines and to reduce the duration and intensity of the headaches in people who have headaches often.
In some people, migraines are triggered when a nerve in the head is stimulated. With this type of surgery, the doctor finds the nerve trigger point in the head and deactivates it. This surgery may reduce the number of migraines or completely eliminate them in sufferers who do not respond to conventional treatments. Most migraines are not treated with surgery.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation surgery may also be used in patients with migraine with aura who have not responded to other treatments.
Self-Care During the Migraine
- Apply cold compresses to painful areas of your head.
- Lie in a dark, quiet room.
- Try to fall asleep.
- Keep a diary. It will help identify what triggers migraines and what helps relieve them.
- Learn stress management and relaxation techniques.
- Consider talking with a counselor. They can help you learn new coping skills and relaxation techniques.
- Exercise regularly .
- If you are a smoker, quit . Smoking may worsen a migraine.
- Avoid foods that trigger migraines.
- Eat regular meals.
- Maintain your regular sleep pattern even during the weekend or on vacation.
If you are diagnosed with a migraine, follow your doctor's instructions .
Methods for preventing migraine include:
- Avoiding those things that trigger the headache
Following your doctor's recommendations—The doctor may consider using medications to prevent headaches such as:
- Butterbur extract
- Medications that lower blood pressure
Healthy lifestyle habits that may help prevent migraines include:
- Maintain regular sleep patterns.
- Learn stress management techniques.
- Do not skip meals.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Exercise regularly. Consider yoga as one type of activity.
- Ask your doctor if acupuncture is right for you. It may help you to have more headache-free days, as well as lessen the intensity of headaches when they do occur.
Therapy that may decrease migraine or migraine pain include:
Mind-body therapies such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Guided imagery (may improve pain coping)
- Massage therapy
Foods are not proven to trigger migraine. But consider keeping a diary of migraine and diet to identify foods that may trigger migraines for you. Foods suspected to trigger migraine include:
- Nuts and peanut butter
- Beans (eg, lima, navy, pinto, and others)
- Aged or cured meats
- Aged cheese
- Processed or canned meat
- Caffeine (intake or withdrawal)
- Canned soup
- Buttermilk or sour cream
- Meat tenderizer
- Brewer's yeast
- Red plums
- Snow peas
- Soy sauce
- Anything with MSG (monosodium glutamate), tyramine, or nitrates
American Headache Society
The National Migraine Association
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Last reviewed December 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.