THE BASICS: “What is a migraine headache?”

A migraine headache (“migraine”) is an intensely throbbing headache, often in only one part of the head. It may occur as often as daily or only once or twice a year. It may last for only a couple of hours or for days. But however long it lasts, a migraine typically causes severe, even disabling, pain.

  • About 10 percent of people worldwide suffer from migraines.
  • The World Health Organization lists migraines, across the globe, as one of the top 20 causes of disability.
  • Up to 5 percent of elementary-school children and about 20 percent of adolescents have migraines.
  • Women are more likely to have migraines than men.

Although there is no cure for migraines, medications are available that can:

  • Help prevent them
  • Help relieve migraine symptoms

Migraines broadly fall into two categories:

  • Migraines with aura (formerly called “classic” migraines)
  • Migraines without aura (formerly called “common” migraines)

If you have migraines, you may be alerted to the onset of a headache by an aura—visual disturbances such as experiencing temporary loss of vision (for example, side vision) or seeing zigzag lines or flashing lights and/or colors

  • An aura may last from 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Auras occur in about one-third of migraine sufferers.
  • If you have migraines with auras, you may also experience:
    • Burning or prickly sensations
    • Muscle weakness on one side of your body
    • Irritability, restlessness, and/or depression
    • Problems communicating with others

The pain may begin in:

  • Your forehead
  • One side of your head
    • In a migraine without aura, the pain may begin on one or both sides of the head.
    • Around your eyes

Usually a migraine gets progressively more painful.

  • Nausea and vomiting may also occur.

The underlying cause of migraines has not been proved, but genetic factors may play a role.

  • Four out of five people with migraines have a family history of it.

What brings on (“triggers”) a migraine is better known. If you have migraines, you may recognize some of these common triggers:

  • Certain foods including processed foods, aged cheese, and alcoholic beverages, particularly red wines
  • Food-additive triggers, including:
    • Monosodium glutamate (MSG), seasoned salt, and meat tenderizers
    • Tyramine, sodium nitrate, and phenylalanine
  • Loud noises or bright lights
  • Strange or strong smells or fumes
  • Weather changes
  • Changes in altitude
  • Stress, anxiety, depression, and/or fatigue
  • In women:
    • Having a menstrual period
    • Using birth control pills
    • Experiencing hormonal changes
  • Intense physical activity, including sexual activity
  • Smoking
  • Lack of food or sleep

Now you know more about what migraine headaches are and how they may affect you (if you have them) or someone you care about. Next step:

  • Getting to know the health professionals who can provide the care you need
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