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Understanding Migraine -- the Basics

What Are Migraines?

Migraines are a type of headache that cause severe, throbbing pain, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light (photophobia) or sound (phonophobia). Migraine headaches generally last between four and 72 hours. Many people experience certain symptoms prior to the onset of the head pain. Symptoms that precede and herald an upcoming headache are referred to as an "aura," and usually last under an hour.

Symptoms of an aura include:

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  • Changes in your vision (even brief blindness)
  • Blind spots in your visual field
  • The appearance of flashing light or other odd configurations of light before your eyes
  • Double vision
  • Dizziness
  • A sensation that the room is spinning around you
  • Difficulty with balance and walking
  • An increased sensitivity to odors
  • A numb or tingly feeling in your face, neck, head, or arms

You are most likely to begin developing migraine headaches between age 10 and 40, and your risk for having migraine headaches is three times greater if you're a woman. Many women find that their migraines improve or disappear altogether after age 50.

What Are the Causes of Migraines?

Research has not completely explained how migraine headaches develop. People who suffer from migraines have brain cells that seem to be overly sensitive to stimulation. Stimulation that has no effect on others -- such as intense emotion, overexertion, foods, odors, or sounds -- sets off a series of events in the brain of migraine sufferers that result in blood vessels first narrowing (constricting) and then widening (dilating). Chemicals are released which cause inflammation and pain.

The tendency to develop migraine headaches appears to be hereditary. In fact, more than 50% of people who get migraines have other family members who also suffer from migraines.

Migraine triggers can include:

  • Stress
  • Hunger (low blood sugar or hypoglycemia)
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Alcohol, particularly red wine
  • Aged cheeses
  • Meats containing nitrates and/or nitrites (deli-type meats such as pepperoni, salami, sausages, lunch meats, and hot dogs)
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (found in certain seasonings, baking mixes, bouillon, stuffing mixes, Chinese food, frozen foods, processed meats, prepared soups, and condiments)
  • Many different types of medications, especially birth control pills or estrogen-replacement therapy

Migraine headaches are also common just before the start of each menstrual period, leading researchers to suspect that a lack of estrogen may lead to the development of migraines in women. Migraines often lessen during the early part of pregnancy, perhaps due to increased estrogen. Some women, however, continue to have problems with migraine throughout their pregnancy.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on March 19, 2015

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