Migraine Causes

Your arms and legs feel tingly again. Your eyes start to blur, and you see spots and colored flashes. Now you feel lightheaded and smell strange odors.

You’ve been here enough to know what’s next. You’ve got a migraine.

You know how yours start, but have no idea why you get them. What makes you more likely than some other people to get these awful headaches?

And what exactly is a migraine? It’s a disabling condition that causes an extremely painful headache that is accompanied by nausea or vomiting, and sensitivity to lights and sounds.

The head pain that happens with migraine is usually a severe, pounding headache that can last hours or even days. But migraine is much more than just a headache. Other symptoms vary from person to person, but you may see spots, have blurred vision, or smell strange odors. You might be sensitive to light, feel sick to your stomach, and even vomit.

Why Do I Get Them?

Doctors aren’t totally sure what causes migraine headaches, but they think imbalances in certain brain chemicals may play a role. Your genes and other things are also likely reasons.

While researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint a cause, they know that several things raise your chances of having migraines, including:

1. Your genes. If someone in your family gets migraine headaches, you’re more likely to get them than someone without that family history.

2. Your age. Migraine headaches can hit at any point in your life, but you’re more likely to get your first one in your teens. The headaches tend to peak in your 30s and become less severe later in life.

3. Your gender. Women are about three times more likely to get them than men.

4. Nerve signals and brain chemicals. The trigeminal nerve, located in your head, runs your eyes and mouth. It also helps you feel sensations in your face and is a major pathway for pain. When your serotonin level drops at the start of a migraine, this nerve may release chemicals called neurotransmitters that travel to the brain and cause pain.


5. Hormonal changes. Shifts in the hormone estrogen can bring on migraines in women. Medications like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy can bring on headaches or make them worse. But some women have fewer migraines when they take these medications.

6. Emotional stress . This is one of the most common migraine triggers. That’s because when you’re stressed, your brain releases chemicals that cause your “fight or flight” response. Anxiety, worry, and fear can create even more tension and make a migraine worse.

7. Certain foods. Salty, processed foods and aged cheeses like blue cheese are known triggers. And the artificial sweetener aspartame, and flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG, may cause them, too.

8. Skipping meals. If you miss a meal, your blood sugar could drop, triggering a headache.

9. Alcohol and caffeine. Do you ever get a raging headache after that glass of wine? Alcoholic drinks and drinks high in caffeine can be migraine triggers.

10. Sensory overload. Bright lights, loud sounds, and strong smells can bring on these headaches in some people.

11. Changes in your sleep pattern. If you get too much or too little sleep, you may get a migraine. Traveling between time zones? Jet lag can be a cause, too.

12. Physical strain . An intense workout, like heavy exercise or even sex, can cause a migraine. You should still be active, but you might do better with a more moderate pace.

13. Changes in weather. This is a big trigger. So is a change in the overall air pressure.

14. Too much medication. If you have migraines and take medications for them more than 10 days in a month, you may be setting yourself up for what’s called a rebound headache. Your doctor will probably call it a medication overuse headache.

While you might not be able to prevent migraine triggers altogether, some simple things -- like regular, good-quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management -- may help you stop them before they start.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 09, 2018



Mayo Clinic: “Migraine,” “Migraine: Simple steps to head off the pain,” “Migraine, symptoms and causes.”

KidsHealth.org: “Migraines: What a Pain!”

Cleveland Clinic: “Migraine Headaches.”

American Cancer Society: “Aspartame: What is Aspartame?”

Medscape: “Trigeminal Nerve Anatomy.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “How a Migraine Happens.”

American Migraine Foundation: “Top 10 Migraine Triggers and How to Deal with Them.”

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