A migraine headache 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. However long it lasts, a migraine typically causes severe, even disabling, pain.

Here are some facts about migraines:

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

Types of Migraines

Migraines broadly fall into two categories:

  • Migraines with aura
  • Migraines without aura

Auras are visual disturbances that alert you to the onset of a migraine. They may last from 15-30 minutes and include temporary loss of vision, seeing zigzag lines, or flashing lights or colors. 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 or depression
  • Problems communicating with others

The pain may begin in your forehead or around your eyes. In a migraine without aura, the pain may begin on one or both sides of the head. Usually a migraine gets progressively more painful, and may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

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.

Migraine Triggers

What brings on—or 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 wine
  • Food additives, including monosodium glutamate (MSG), seasoned salt, 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 or fatigue
  • In women, having a menstrual period, using birth control pills, or other hormonal changes
  • Intense physical activity, including sexual activity
  • Smoking
  • Lack of food or sleep

Although there is no cure for migraines, medications are available that can help to prevent them and help to relieve symptoms.