Migraine: Terms to Know

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 02, 2020

If you have migraine headaches, you actually have a medical condition called migraine. As you get treatment for it, you’re going to need to learn a new language when it comes to symptoms and types of headaches. Knowing these terms will help you talk with your doctor. You need to know what symptoms point to a migraine that will respond to your treatment plan, and which signal a more urgent problem, like a stroke, that will require emergency treatment. Here’s a list to get you started.

Ataxia. This means you have trouble using your muscles. It leads to lack of coordination and can make it hard to walk. It usually comes with a type called migraine with brainstem aura.

Aura. These are changes in vision or sensation before or with a migraine. A typical aura has symptoms that include:

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


The symptoms come on gradually, last no longer than an hour, and are completely reversible. You may have only one of these symptoms. Or you could get one after another during a migraine.

Aura without headache. This is when you have aura symptoms but no headache. It’s often mistaken for a stroke, especially among seniors.

Cutaneous allodynia. This is when touching your skin becomes painful. During a migraine, it might hurt to put in contacts, shave, or brush your hair.

Module: video
photo of janet geddis
Story of the Migraine GirlJanet Geddis loves books and refuses to let migraine attacks become the storyline of her life.237

JANET GEDDIS: Once upon a time,

there was a girl who loved books

who had what she thought

were very bad headaches.

So I grew up with parents who

read to me and told me stories.

I've always loved books.

They allow you to safely explore

ideas and storylines

and adventures

that on the one hand sometimes

you have been

through similar things,

but on the other hand

it's a way to sort of experiment

with different emotions

and feelings and situations

that you haven't encountered


So when I was 13,

that's the first time I remember

having a headache that was so

bad that I couldn't function.

I remember

throughout high school taking

a 20 minute nap during our lunch


to see if it would go away.

But I remember it was the year

that I turned 21.

What I now know

are migraine attacks started

getting more and more frequent

and more severe.

So I went

to a general practitioner,

and he diagnosed me

with chronic migraine.

It's 15 or more days a month are

affected by migraine attacks.

The symptoms are

different for everybody,

but usually for me

noise sensitivity, sensitivity

to light.

For the visual disturbances,

I often will have just sort

of like a blind spot.

So it just sort of like slowly

takes over and makes everything

more blurry.

A lot of people

get really worried because it

almost feels as if they're

having a stroke.

You can have lapses in memory.

You can't find words.

Sometimes you'll smell things

that aren't there.

Each attack or episode

is different.

So when people say things like,

what's your typical migraine


I don't really have

a typical one.

I have a series of articles

I call the Completely Unofficial

Made-Up Migraine Types.

It helps me to personify them,

or come up with nicknames

for different attacks.

The clothes pin is a type

of migraine where you feel

a pinch behind your eye.

The bulldozer completely comes

out of the blue,

knocks you over, and leaves

a scene of destruction behind.

The hourglass will accumulate

throughout the day

slowly, but surely.

The zombie-- you think you've

gotten rid of it.

You wake up, you feel a lot


And it comes haunting back,

stalking you.

The Russian nesting doll

migraine, it feels a little bit

like your skull

is a tiny bit too large to hold

your brain, and your brain

is sort of shaking around


There's some issues that I have

with doctors over the years.

I was in grad school at one

of my quarterly meetings

with him, my doctor

appointments, and he told me

that my migraine disease was so

severe that he didn't anticipate

that I would ever

be able to work full time.

I ended up firing my doctor,

but I was determined to prove

wrong the idea that somebody

with a chronic illness

couldn't be productive and happy

and live a full life.

Like a lot of book nerds,

I always dreamt of opening

a bookstore.

It was one of the many career

paths I could imagine

for myself.

I knew that my health was

precarious enough that if I

wanted to have

a successful business,

I needed to go ahead and make

a plan that would allow me

to miss work for one day

or 20 days if I needed to.

I have coworkers who are very


about my condition,

and we have created the business

so that it runs like clockwork

even if I'm not able to be


Every single day people walk in

and just stop and take

a deep breath,

and that's the whole experience

I have around books.

That's what I want to give

to people is that moment where

they walk in and just

feel like they can take

a deep breath in and out

and just be themselves.

So I love it here.

Janet Geddis/delivery/aws/e9/0b/e90bb911-2fed-36a4-b00a-ebbf68af8055/091e9c5e81ead68c_funded-webmd-tv-migraines-janet-geddis_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp404/07/2020 09:48:00650350photo of janet geddis/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/migraines_janet_geddis_video/650x350_migraines_janet_geddis_video.jpg091e9c5e81ea7663

Diplopia. If you've ever had double vision -- which means that you see two of everything -- you've had diplopia. This is a type of visual aura.

Dysphasia. This type of aura causes problems with language skills. It might be hard to recall a word or to speak at all. Or you might have trouble understanding what others are saying or making sense when you speak. You might hear it called language aura.

Fortification spectra. With this type of visual aura, complex images float in your vision during a migraine. They look like an overhead view of an old-fashioned fort.


Hemiplegic migraine. During an attack of this rare type of migraine, you might have muscle weakness or trouble moving at all. The weakness gets better over time but can last for days. It’s easy to mistake these symptoms for a stroke or epilepsy, so you’ll need to see a doctor to make a diagnosis

Hyperosmia. In medical terms, "hyper" means excessive. "Osmia" refers to smells. Thus, hyperosmia means that you're unusually sensitive to odors. This doesn’t just mean odors are strong. It means you’re extra sensitive to them. You may also notice a difference in how you perceive smells.

Menstrual migraine. Changing hormone levels just before or during your period trigger these headaches. You’re more likely to get them 2 days before your period or in the first 3 days after it starts.

Migraine headache. You’ll usually feel a pulsing pain on one side of your head. As it worsens, you might get nauseated and throw up. You could also feel sensitive to light. (The doctor will call this photosensitivity.)


Migraine postdrome. This is the phase of a migraine after the throbbing headache goes away. You might still hurt a little where you had the headache. You might also have extreme emotions. Some people feel joy. Others are just exhausted.

Module: video
photo of textbook
Migraine Treatment: What Are Your Options?What kind of options are out there to treat and limit the effect of migraine on your life? Learn what you can do to prepare and protect yourself.84

SPEAKER: While there's no cure

for migraines,

there are treatments that can

ease your symptoms

and help keep future attacks

from happening.

Pain relieving drugs can be

taken during migraine.

Many are over-the-counter.

They come as pills,

nasal sprays, or shots.

And they work best when taken

at the first sign of a migraine.

And if your migraines come

with nausea and vomiting,

anti-nausea drugs can also help.

Prescription preventive

treatments are another option.

You take these drugs regularly

to lessen how often you get


and how severe they are.

Some preventive options are

blood pressure-lowering drugs,


anti-seizure drugs, Botox shots,

and CGRP receptor blockers.

Used alone

or with other treatments,

lifestyle changes, home

remedies, and non-traditional

therapies can also provide


You could try acupuncture, yoga,

relaxation training,

or behavioral therapy.

Put yourself on a sleeping

and eating routine,

exercise often, and be

sure to drink plenty of water.

Not all treatments work

for everyone, but with so many

options, you and your doctor

can find the best plan for you.

Mayo Clinic: "Migraine."<br>American Migraine Foundation: "Identifying & Treating Migraine."<br>UpToDate: "Acute Treatment of Migraine in Adults."<br>American Migraine Foundation: "Migraine Treatment."/delivery/aws/93/81/9381eb41-cb77-388c-82a2-24bfcc2c407f/091e9c5e81ea8dc9_funded-animated-explainer-migraine-treatments_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp404/07/2020 10:42:00650350photo of textbook/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/migraine_treatments_video/650x350_migraine_treatments_video.jpg091e9c5e81ea8dc9

Migraine prodrome. This phase of the migraine cycle happens 24 to 48 hours before a headache starts. You might notice symptoms like crankiness and mood swings, food cravings, constipation, and neck stiffness. You might notice that you yawn a lot.

Migraine with brainstem aura. This rare type starts in your brainstem. It causes symptoms like weakness, visual auras, trouble moving, tingling, and numbness. You might still hear it called by its old name, basilar-type migraine.

Motor aura. This rare type will make your arms, legs, and face on one side of your body weak. You might feel them in just one place or one after the other, but not usually at the same time.

Ocular migraine. This is an umbrella term for headaches with symptoms that affect your sight, like blind spots, zigzag lines, seeing stars, and even vision loss. There are two types:

  • Migraine with aura, which causes vision or sensory symptoms for a short time before the headache
  • Retinal migraine, which causes vision symptoms during the headache. These are more severe and can range from twinkling lights to a decrease in vision or temporary blindness.


Ophthalmoplegic migraine. This rare condition isn’t really a migraine and was recently renamed recurrent ophthalmoplegic neuropathy. It affects the nerves in your eye, and it can cause uncontrolled motion in your eye (your doctor will call it palsy) and pain. It can last for weeks or months, but it is reversible.

Phonophobia. This means you’re sensitive to sound during a headache. It may be more common if you have a pulsating headache or one that affects only one side of your head than if the migraine is a pressing pain on both sides of your head.

Photopsia. These flashes of light happen during an aura. They could be simple, or a complex array of lights and images could appear before your eyes.

Photosensitivity. During a migraine, being around sunlight or artificial light may make you feel even more uncomfortable. You might also hear it called photosensitivity or photophobia.

Scotoma. This partial loss of vision can also come along with a migraine aura.


Sensory aura. You’ll feel this as a tingling in your face, mouth, arm, or leg. As the tingling moves along your body, it’s followed by numbness that can last up to an hour. It may sound like a stroke, but it isn’t.

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 lightheadedness or trouble keeping your balance.

Vestibular migraine. You might get dizzy or have trouble with balance, but you won’t always get a headache. This usually affects people who have both motion sickness and migraines.

WebMD Medical Reference



International Headache Society: "Familial Hemiplegic Migraine (FHM)."

Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 30th edition.

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

Kirchmann, M. Neurology, March 2006.

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

Sun-Edelstein, C. Clinical Journal of Pain, June 2009.

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

Stroke Association: “Migraine and stroke.”

American Migraine Foundation: “Menstrual Migraine Treatment and Prevention,” “Migraine with Brainstem Aura (Basilar Type Migraine),” “Understanding Ocular Migraine.”

UpToDate: “Hemiplegic migraine,” “Migraine with brainstem aura (basilar-type migraine),” “Pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of migraine in adults.”

National Headache Foundation: “Visual Disturbances.”

Cleveland Clinic: “What’s That Smell? What You Need to Know About Hyperosmia.”

United Energy Workers Healthcare: “Migraine Dysphasia.”

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “Ophthalmoplegic Migraine/Recurrent Painful Ophthalmoplegic Neuropathy.”

Cephalalgia: “Phonophobia in migraine.”

Hopkins Medicine: “Vestibular Migraine.”

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