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Migraine Headache

Facts and Definition of Migraine Headache

Patient Comments
  • Migraine headaches are one of the most common problems seen in emergency departments and doctors' offices. They are due to changes in the brain and surrounding blood vessels.
  • Migraine headaches typically last from 4 to 72 hours and vary in frequency from daily to fewer than one per year.
  • According to the National Headache Foundation, more than 37 million Americans suffer from migraine, and it affects three times as many women as men. About 70% to 80% of people with migraines (called migraineurs) have other members in the family who have them too.
  • Different types of migraine headaches:
  • Common migraine accounts for 80% of migraines. There is no "aura" before a common migraine.
  • People with classic migraines experience an aura before their headaches. Most often, an aura is a visual disturbance (outlines of lights or jagged light images). Classic migraines are usually much more severe than common migraines.
  • Status migrainosus is a migraine attack that lasts more than 72 hours.

What Causes and Triggers Migraine Headaches?

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The exact cause of migraine headaches is not clearly understood, though experts believe they are due to a combination of the expansion of blood vessels and the release of certain chemicals, which causes inflammation and pain.

The chemicals dopamine and serotonin are among those involved in migraine. These chemicals are found normally in the brain and can cause blood vessels to act abnormally if they are present in abnormal amounts or if the blood vessels are unusually sensitive to them.

Various risks and triggers are thought to bring about migraine in certain people prone to developing the condition. Different people may have different triggers. Individual triggers can include:

  • Certain foods, especially chocolate, cheese, nuts, alcohol, and MSG, bring on headaches in some people. (MSG is a food enhancer used in many foods including Chinese food.)
  • Missing a meal may bring on a headache.
  • Stress and tension are also risk factors. People often have migraines during times of increased emotional or physical stress.
  • Birth control pills are a common trigger. Women may have migraines at the end of the pill cycle as the estrogen component of the pill is stopped. This is called an estrogen-withdrawal headache.
  • Smoking may cause migraines or interfere with their treatment.

What Does a Migraine Headache Feel Like (Symptoms)?

Symptoms and signs vary from person to person and from migraine to migraine. Five phases often can be identified.

  1. Prodrome: A variety of warnings can come before a migraine. These may consist of a change in mood (for example, feeling "high," irritable, or depressed) or a subtle change of sensation (for example, a funny taste or smell). Fatigue and muscle tension are also common.
  2. Aura: This is commonly a visual or other sensory disturbance that precedes the headache phase. Some patients develop blind spots (called scotomas); see geometric patterns or flashing, colorful lights; or lose vision on one side (hemianopia).While visual auras are most common, motor and even verbal auras have also been described.
  3. Headache: The pain of a migraine usually appears on one side of the head, but some occur on both sides. Throbbing pain may be present. A majority of patients feel nauseated, and some vomit. Most become sensitive to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia). This phase may last 4 to 72 hours.
  4. Headache termination: Even if untreated, the pain usually goes away with sleep.
  5. Postdrome: Other signs, for example, inability to eat, problems with concentration, or fatigue, may linger after the pain has disappeared.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/3/2017

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Migraine Headaches in Children: Are The Symptoms Different Than In Adults?

About 5%-10% of school aged children in the US suffer from migraine headaches. The frequency increases throughout adolescence, and peaks around age 44. About 20% have their first attack before age 5. Common symptoms include:

  • Headache pain
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to sound and light
  • Vomiting

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Migraine Headache »

Migraines are severe, throbbing headaches frequently located in the temples or frontal head regions.

Read More on Medscape Reference »


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