10 Terms Every Migraine Sufferer Should Know

Some headaches only include pain. A migraine, however, causes far more. If you have migraine headaches, you actually have a medical condition called migraine. Learning a few new words may help you better understand and describe your symptoms.

Here are the definitions of 10 important migraine terms:

Ataxia. This is the medical term for difficulty using your muscles that leads to lack of coordination. A type of migraine called basilar migraine, which involves the brainstem, may cause ataxia that affects your ability to walk and talk. In one study that asked people with basilar migraine about their symptoms, 5% had ataxia.

Aura. In about 20% to 25% of people with migraines, an aura precedes the headache or occurs alongside it. A typical aura has symptoms that may be:

  • Visual changes  such as flickering lights, spots or lines, loss of vision.
  • Sensory: numbness, tingling, or pins-and-needles feeling in the body.
  • Speech: difficulty speaking or understanding words.

The symptoms develop gradually, last no longer than one hour, and are completely reversible. Some people may have only one of these symptoms of an aura. Other people may experience one after another during a migraine attack.

Diplopia: If you've ever had double vision -- which means that you see two of everything -- you've had diplopia. This is one of the symptoms that experts use to diagnose basilar migraine. In the study that looked into the symptoms of people with basilar migraine, 45% had diplopia.

Hyperosmia: In medical terms, "hyper" means excessive. "Osmia" refers to smells. Thus, hyperosmia means that you're unusually sensitive to odors.

Many people with migraine headaches have a other unpleasant symptoms during the attack aside from the headache. These symptoms can include hyperosmia, as well as sensitivity to light and sound.

Familial hemiplegic migraine. This is a rare type of migraine with an aura that includes muscle weakness. During the attack, people with this form of migraine have trouble moving their body. The severity can range from muscle weakness to a total inability to move. The muscle weakness is fully reversible.

This type of migraine is often mistaken for epilepsy. People may feel confused during these attacks.


The episodes of muscle weakness and movement abnormalities can last for hours or days. In some cases, people can become comatose during the migraine.

Familial hemiplegic migraine can run in families. In patients with familial hemiplegic migraine, at least one first- or second-degree relative may have this type of migraine. Experts have linked the disorder to a number of genetic mutations.

Photopsia/fortification spectra. The vision changes that can occur during an aura may involve a complex array of lights and images that appear before your eyes. Photopsia is the medical term for flashes of light.

Fortification spectra are more complicated images that can float in your vision during a migraine. These get their name from their resemblance to an aerial view of an intricately built fort.

Photosensitivity. During a migraine, being around sunlight or artificial light may make you feel even more uncomfortable. This is called photosensitivity. Another term that is sometimes used to describe this problem is photophobia.

Scotoma. This is another type of vision change that may occur as part of a migraine aura. A scotoma means a loss of vision.

Vertigo. This is the sense that you're spinning (or the world around you is spinning) when you're really not. People often use this word to mean dizziness, but these words really describe different things. Dizziness may involve a sense of light-headedness or trouble keeping your balance.

Vertigo is another common symptom of basilar migraine. In the study tracking the different symptoms in people with basilar migraine, 61% reported vertigo.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephen D. Silberstein, MD on July 17, 2017



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Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 30th edition.

Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice, 6th edition.

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American Headache Society: "Photosensitivity and the Headache Patient."

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National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: "Glossary."


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