A migraine headache can cause intense throbbing or pulsing in one area of the head and is commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can cause significant pain for hours to days and be so severe that all you can think about is finding a dark, quiet place to lie down.
Some migraines are preceded or accompanied by sensory warning symptoms (aura), such as flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your arm or leg.
Medications can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. If treatment hasn't worked for you in the past, talk to your doctor about trying a different migraine headache medication. The right medicines, combined with self-help remedies and lifestyle changes, may make a tremendous difference.
Migraine headaches often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Migraines may progress through four stages — prodrome, aura, attack and postdrome — though you may not experience all the stages.
One or two days before a migraine, you may notice subtle changes that may signify an oncoming migraine, including:
Most people experience migraine headaches without aura. Auras are usually visual but can also be sensory, motor or verbal disturbances. Each of these symptoms typically begins gradually, builds up over several minutes, then commonly lasts for 10 to 30 minutes. Examples of aura include:
Less commonly, an aura may be associated with aphasia or limb weakness (hemiplegic migraine).
When untreated, a migraine typically lasts from four to 72 hours, but the frequency with which headaches occur varies from person to person. You may have migraines several times a month or much less frequently. During a migraine, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
The final phase — known as postdrome — occurs after a migraine attack, when you may feel drained and washed out, though some people report feeling mildly euphoric.
When to see a doctor
Migraine headaches are often undiagnosed and untreated. If you regularly experience signs and symptoms of migraine attacks, keep a record of your attacks and how you treated them. Then make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your headaches and decide on a treatment plan.
Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different.
See your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have any of the following signs and symptoms, which may indicate other, more serious medical problems:
Although much about the cause of migraines isn't understood, genetics and environmental factors seem to both play a role.
Migraines may be caused by changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway. Imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin — which helps regulate pain in your nervous system — also may be involved.
Serotonin levels drop during migraine attacks. This may trigger your trigeminal system to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain's outer covering (meninges). The result is headache pain.
Migraine headache triggers
Whatever the exact mechanism of the headaches, a number of things may trigger them. Common migraine triggers include:
Several factors make you more prone to having migraines.
Sometimes your efforts to control your pain cause problems.
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care provider, but you may be referred to a physician who specializes in headache (neurologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well-prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For migraine headaches, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
What you can do in the meantime
If you have typical migraines or a family history of migraine headaches, your doctor will likely diagnose the condition on the basis of your medical history and a physical exam. But if your headaches are unusual, severe or sudden, your doctor may recommend a variety of tests to rule out other possible causes for your pain.
A variety of drugs have been specifically designed to treat migraines. In addition, some drugs commonly used to treat other conditions also may help relieve or prevent migraines. Medications used to combat migraines fall into two broad categories:
Choosing a strategy to manage your migraines depends on the frequency and severity of your headaches, the degree of disability your headaches cause, and your other medical conditions.
Some medications aren't recommended if you're pregnant or breast-feeding. Some aren't used for children. Your doctor can help find the right medication for you.
For best results, take pain-relieving drugs as soon as you experience signs or symptoms of a migraine. It may help if you rest or sleep in a dark room after taking them:
You may be a candidate for preventive therapy if you have two or more debilitating attacks a month, if pain-relieving medications aren't helping, or if your migraine signs and symptoms include a prolonged aura or numbness and weakness.
Preventive medications can reduce the frequency, severity and length of migraines and may increase the effectiveness of symptom-relieving medicines used during migraine attacks. Your doctor may recommend that you take preventive medications daily, or only when a predictable trigger, such as menstruation, is approaching.
In most cases, preventive medications don't eliminate headaches completely, and some cause serious side effects. If you have had good results from preventive medicine and have been migraine-free for six months to a year, your doctor may recommend tapering off the medication to see if your migraines return without it.
For best results, take these medications as your doctor recommends:
Self-care measures can help ease the pain of a migraine headache.
Nontraditional therapies may be helpful if you have chronic migraine pain:
Whether or not you take preventive medications, you may benefit from lifestyle changes that can help reduce the number and severity of migraines. One or more of these suggestions may be helpful for you:
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