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Migraine Headaches - Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

This topic is about migraine headaches. If you are looking for information about tension headaches, see Tension Headaches.

If you are looking for information about headaches in children, see Headaches in Children.

What are migraine headaches?

Migraines are painful, throbbing headaches that last from 4 to 72 hours. When you have a migraine, it may be so painful that you are not able to do your usual activities. But even though migraines make you feel bad, they don't cause long-term damage.

Migraines are a health problem that can be treated. Talk to your doctor about your migraines.

What causes migraines?

Experts are not sure what causes migraines.

Migraines run in families, but it isn't clear why some people get migraines and others don't.

Some things can cause a migraine to start. These are called triggers. Your triggers may be different from someone else's. Some common triggers include:

  • Stress.
  • Not eating.
  • Poor sleep habits.
  • A change from your normal routine.
  • Red wine.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG).
  • Strong odors.
  • Chocolate.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of a migraine is a throbbing headache on one side of your head. You also may feel sick to your stomach and vomit. Activity, light, noise, or odors may make the migraine worse. The pain may move from one side of your head to the other, or you may feel it on both sides at the same time. Different people have different symptoms.

Some people have an aura before the migraine begins. When you have an aura, you may first see spots, wavy lines, or flashing lights. Your hands, arms, or face may tingle or feel numb. The aura usually starts about 30 minutes before the headache. But most people don't have auras.

How are migraines diagnosed?

A doctor can usually tell if you have a migraine by asking about your symptoms and examining you. You probably will not need lab tests, but your doctor may order some if he or she thinks your symptoms are caused by another disease.

How are they treated?

You can't cure migraines. But medicines and other treatments may help you feel better and limit how often you get migraines.

At first, your doctor may want you to try an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Brand names include Tylenol, Bayer, Advil, and Aleve. Some over-the-counter medicines (for example, Excedrin) combine acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine. If these medicines don't work, your doctor can prescribe stronger medicine to stop the migraine. Your doctor also may prescribe medicine to prevent migraines.

You may not be able to use some medicines if you are pregnant or have other health problems, such as heart problems.

If the first medicine doesn't work, ask your doctor if you can try something else. It may take time to find what works best for you.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 10, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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