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Migraine Headache FAQs

What are migraine headaches?

Migraines are disabling headaches that most likely stem from problems with the nerves and blood vessels in the head. Migraine headaches typically last from 4-72 hours. They may occur as often as several times a week to only once a year. People who have migraines are called migraineurs.

Migraine headaches affect a signifigant percentage of the population. Three times as many women as men have migraines. Most of migraineurs have family members who have migraines. The following types of migraine headache have been identified:

  • Migraine without aura (common migraine): This type accounts for most migraine headaches. There is no aura before a common migraine.
  • Migraine with aura (classic migraine): This type is usually preceded by an aura and is usually much worse than a common migraine.Most often, an aura is a visual disturbance (outlines of lights or jagged light images).
  • Status migrainosus: This is the term used to describe a long-lasting migraine that does not go away by itself.

How dangerous are migraine headaches?

Although migraine headaches are excruciating, they are seldom life threatening. They are harmful to a person's quality of life, however. They sometimes cause depression and/or anxiety disorders, especially if the headaches are uncontrolled by medication or other therapies. Doctors conduct thorough examinations and tests of persons with migraine headaches in order to rule out truly life-threatening possibilities like tumors or bleeding in the brain.

Not all severe headaches are migraines. Headaches can be warnings of more serious conditions. The following signs (what doctors find) or symptoms (what patients report) are reasons for concern:

  • Headaches associated with other neurological (relating to the brain, spinal cord, or nerves) signs or symptoms (for example, diplopia [seeing double], loss of sensation, weakness, ataxia [clumsiness])
  • Headaches that have an abrupt onset (come on very fast)
  • Headaches that do not go away, especially if they last longer than 72 hours
  • Headaches that first occur after age 55 years
  • Headaches that develop after head injury or major trauma
  • Headaches accompanied by a stiff neck or fever
  • Headaches in a person who does not have a clear family history of migraine headaches
Last Reviewed 11/17/2017
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headache triggers

Migraine Headache Causes

What are Migraine Headache Triggers?

Various triggers are thought to bring about migraine in certain people prone to developing migraine. 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.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Migraine Headache »

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