Migraine: Terms to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 17, 2023
5 min read

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, 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.

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.

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.