A migraine can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on just one side of the head. It’s often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraine attacks can cause significant pain for hours to days and can be so severe that the pain is disabling.
Warning symptoms known as aura may occur before or with the headache. These can include flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling on one side of the face or in your arm or leg.
Medications can help prevent some migraines and make them less painful. Talk to your doctor about different migraine treatment options if you can’t find relief. The right medicines, combined with self-help remedies and lifestyle changes, may help.
Migraines often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Migraines may progress through four stages: prodrome, aura, headache and post-drome, though you may not experience all stages.
One or two days before a migraine, you may notice subtle changes that warn of an upcoming migraine, including:
- Mood changes, from depression to euphoria
- Food cravings
- Neck stiffness
- Increased thirst and urination
- Frequent yawning
Aura may occur before or during migraines. Most people experience migraines without aura.
Auras are symptoms of the nervous system. They are usually visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or wavy, zigzag vision.
Sometimes auras can also be touching sensations (sensory), movement (motor) or speech (verbal) disturbances. Your muscles may get weak, or you may feel as though someone is touching you.
Each of these symptoms usually begins gradually, builds up over several minutes and lasts for 20 to 60 minutes. Examples of migraine aura include:
- Visual phenomena, such as seeing various shapes, bright spots or flashes of light
- Vision loss
- Pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg
- Weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking
- Hearing noises or music
- Uncontrollable jerking or other movements
Sometimes, a migraine with aura may be associated with limb weakness (hemiplegic migraine).
A migraine usually lasts from four to 72 hours if untreated. The frequency with which headaches occur varies from person to person. Migraines may be rare, or strike several times a month. During a migraine, you may experience:
- Pain on one side or both sides of your head
- Pain that feels throbbing or pulsing
- Sensitivity to light, sounds, and sometimes smells and touch
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Lightheadedness, sometimes followed by fainting
The final phase, known as post-drome, occurs after a migraine attack. You may feel drained and washed out, while some people feel elated. For about 24 hours, you may also experience:
- Sensitivity to light and sound
Though migraine causes aren’t understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role.
Migraines may be caused by changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway.
Imbalances in brain chemicals — including serotonin, which helps regulate pain in your nervous system — also may be involved. Researchers are still studying the role of serotonin in migraines.
Serotonin levels drop during migraine attacks. This may cause your trigeminal nerve to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain’s outer covering (meninges). The result is migraine pain. Other neurotransmitters play a role in the pain of migraine, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP).
A number of factors may trigger migraines, including:
- Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen seem to trigger headaches in many women. Women with a history of migraines often report headaches immediately before or during their periods, when they have a major drop in estrogen.Others have an increased tendency to develop migraines during pregnancy or menopause.Hormonal medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, also may worsen migraines. Some women, however, find their migraines occur less often when taking these medications.
- Foods. Aged cheeses, salty foods and processed foods may trigger migraines. Skipping meals or fasting also can trigger attacks.
- Food additives. The sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in many foods, may trigger migraines.
- Drinks. Alcohol, especially wine, and highly caffeinated beverages may trigger migraines.
- Stress. Stress at work or home can cause migraines.
- Sensory stimuli. Bright lights and sun glare can induce migraines, as can loud sounds. Strong smells — including perfume, paint thinner, secondhand smoke and others — can trigger migraines in some people.
- Changes in wake-sleep pattern. Missing sleep or getting too much sleep may trigger migraines in some people, as can jet lag.
- Physical factors. Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, may provoke migraines.
- Changes in the environment. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
- Medications. Oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can aggravate migraines.