Your Guide to Migraine Headaches

Migraines are powerful headaches that often happen with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. They can last from 4 hours to 3 days, and sometimes longer.

The National Headache Foundation estimates that 28 million Americans get them, women more than men. 

What Causes Migraines?

Doctors don’t know the exact causes of migraines, although they seem to be related to changes in the brain as well as to genes that run in families. People can even inherit the triggers that give them migraines, such as fatigue, bright lights, weather changes, and others.

For many years, scientists believed that migraines were caused by changes in blood flow in the brain. Many now think that they happen because of flaws in the brain passed down from parents.

A migraine starts when overactive nerve cells send out signals that make the brain’s blood vessels narrow, then expand. That creates the sensation of pulsating pain.

What Triggers a Migraine?

Some common triggers include:

  • Stress. This is one of the most common triggers. When you’re stressed, your brain releases chemicals that can cause the blood vessel changes that can lead to a migraine.
  • Foods. Some foods and drinks, such as aged cheese, alcohol, and food additives like nitrates (in pepperoni, hot dogs, lunchmeats) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) may be responsible for up to 30% of migraines.
  • Caffeine . Getting too much caffeine or withdrawal from it can cause headaches when the level in your body abruptly drops. Blood vessels seem to get used to caffeine, and when you don’t have any, you may get a headache. Caffeine itself can be a treatment for acute migraine attacks.
  • Changes in weather. Storm fronts, changes in barometric pressure, strong winds, or changes in altitude can all trigger a migraine.
  • Having your period
  • Feeling very tired
  • Skipping meals
  • Changes to your sleep

Migraines and Other Health Problems

Are Migraines Hereditary?

Yes, migraines seem to run in families. Four out of 5 people with the condition have other family members who have them, too. If one parent has a history of migraines, their child has a 50% chance of getting them, and if both parents have them, the risk jumps to 75%.


What Are the Symptoms of Migraines?

You can have a mix of migraine symptoms. Common ones include:

  • A headache that often begins as a dull ache and grows into throbbing pain. It usually gets worse during physical activity. The pain can shift from one side of the head to the other, can be in the front of the head, or feel like it's affecting the whole head.
  • Sensitivity to light, noise, and smells
  • Nausea and vomiting, upset stomach, and belly pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very warm or cold
  • Pale skin
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever (this is rare)

Most migraines last about 4 hours, but severe ones can last up to a week. How often they happen differs for everyone, but it’s common to get two to four headaches per month. Some people may get migraines every few days, while others get them once or twice a year.

Types of Migraines

The terms for two types of migraines refer to the symptoms that signal when one is about to start, called an aura.

An aura can start 1 hour before the pain and last from 15 minutes to 1 hour. Visual auras include:

  • Bright flashing dots or lights
  • Blind spots
  • Blurry vision
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Wavy or jagged lines

Other auras can affect your other senses. You might just have a "funny feeling" and not be able to describe the sensation. You could also have ringing in the ears or changes in smell (such as strange odors), taste, or touch.

Rare migraine conditions include these types of auras:

Hemiplegic migraine . A short period of paralysis (hemiplegia) or nerve changes on one side of the body, such as muscle weakness. You might also feel temporary numbness, dizziness, or vision changes. If you get these symptoms, it’s important to know how to tell them apart from the signs of a stroke, which can seem similar.

Ophthalmic migraine. Short-lived, partial, or complete loss of vision in one eye, along with a dull ache behind the eye, which may spread to the rest of the head.


Basilar artery migraine . Dizziness, confusion, or loss of balance can happen before the headache. The pain may affect the back of the head. These symptoms usually start suddenly and can happen with trouble speaking, ringing in the ears, and vomiting. This type of migraine is strongly linked to hormone changes and mainly affects young adult women.

Status migrainosus . A rare and severe type of migraine that can last 72 hours or longer. The pain and nausea are so intense that people who have this type often need to go to the hospital. Some medicines, or medication withdrawal, can cause them.

Ophthalmoplegic migraine. Pain around the eye, including paralysis of the muscles around it. This is a medical emergency because the symptoms can also be caused by pressure on the nerves behind the eye or an aneurysm. Other symptoms of this rare type of migraine include a droopy eyelid, double vision, or other vision changes.

Migraines without auras are more common. Several hours before the headache starts, the person can have vague symptoms, including:


How Are Migraines Treated?

There is no cure for migraines. But many drugs can treat or even prevent some of them. You can also get them less often when you avoid triggers that cause them, such as drinking red wine or getting too little sleep.

  • Pain relief. Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs often work well for some people. The main ingredients are ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. Be careful when you take OTC pain meds because sometimes they can add to a headache. If you use them too much, you can get rebound headaches or become dependent on them. If you take any OTC pain relievers more than three times a week or daily, it's time to see your doctor. She can suggest prescription meds that may be more effective.
  • Nausea medicine. Your doctor can prescribe medication if you get nausea with migraines.
  • Preventive medicines. If you take them at the first sign of a migraine, they may stop the process that causes the pain. These medications can also stop the headache itself. They work by narrowing the brain’s blood vessels, bringing them back to normal, and relieving the throbbing pain.
  • Biofeedback . This technique helps people learn to recognize stressful situations that trigger migraines. If the headache begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to stop the attack before it becomes full blown.
  • Magnetic stimulation. A transcranial magnetic stimulator (TMS) is a device that goes on the back of the head at the start of a migraine with aura. It sends a pulse of magnetic energy to part of the brain, which may stop or reduce pain.


Can Migraines Be Prevented?

Yes. You can have them less often when you identify and avoid migraine triggers. Keep track of your symptom patterns in a headache diary so you can figure out what’s causing them.

Stress management and relaxation training can help prevent your attacks or make them less severe.

Women who often get migraines around their periods can take preventive medicines when they know it’s that time of the month.

People also seem to have fewer migraines when they eat on a regular schedule and get enough rest. Regular exercise -- in moderation -- can also help prevent them.

When lifestyle changes aren't enough, you have other options. Preventive medications can make your headaches less severe and happen less often when you take them on a regular basis.

Also, Cefaly is the first FDA-approved device for preventing migraines in people over age 18. The portable, headband-like gadget sends electrical pulses through the skin of the forehead. It stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which is linked with migraine headaches. You use Cefaly once a day for 20 minutes, and when it's on you'll feel a tingling or massaging sensation.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on January 13, 2017


SOURCES: National Headache Foundation: "Migraine."

Stewart, W. Annals of Neurology, February 1997.

Daroff, R. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice, 6th edition, Saunders, 2012.

Medical Clinics of North America, March 2009.

News release, FDA.

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