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A migraine is more than a bad headache—it’s a complex neurological condition characterized by intense, throbbing pain, often on one side of the head. If you’re coping with or curious about “what is a migraine,” this article will illuminate the causes, signs, and treatments that can help manage this challenging condition, without drowning you in medical lingo.

Key Takeaways

  • Migraine is a debilitating condition characterized by severe, throbbing headaches and sensitivity to light and sound, which can last for several hours to days, impacting daily activities.
  • Recognition of migraine types and symptoms, such as visual or sensory aura, is crucial for diagnosis; triggers include stress, dietary factors, and environmental changes, with genetics and hormones playing significant roles in their occurrence.
  • Preventive strategies such as maintaining a regular sleep and eating schedule, staying hydrated, exercising, and utilizing relaxation techniques can alleviate the frequency of migraines, supported by a range of resources and communities for sufferers.

Defining Migraine: An In-Depth Look

Migraine headaches, especially frequent migraines, are a type of severe headache characterized by throbbing pain typically occurring on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. The intensity of the pain might be so severe that it leads to the cessation of normal activities.

The duration of a migraine can vary significantly, lasting several hours up to days. This unpredictability, combined with the debilitating pain, makes migraines a particularly challenging condition to manage.

Types of Migraines

Migraines are not a one-size-fits-all condition. They come in various types, each with unique symptoms. The most common types include:

  • Migraine with aura
  • Migraine without aura
  • Chronic migraine
  • Migraine with brainstem aura
  • Vestibular migraine
  • Abdominal migraine
  • Hemiplegic migraine
  • Menstrual migraine
  • Cyclical vomiting syndrome

A migraine with aura, for example, involves not just headaches but also reversible neurological symptoms such as visual disturbances, which typically occur before or during the headache phase. Understanding these types is crucial as it informs the treatment approach and helps manage expectations.

Migraine Phases

A migraine episode typically unfolds in phases. The prodrome phase presents subtle warning signs prior to a migraine, such as:

  • mood changes
  • food cravings
  • increased urination
  • neck stiffness
  • constipation

It’s like your body’s early warning system, signaling that a migraine might be on its way.

After the headache phase, the post-drome phase may follow where individuals often feel drained or confused for up to a day, and quick head movements can briefly bring back the pain. It’s akin to a migraine hangover, leaving you with a sense of fatigue after the storm has passed.

Identifying Migraine Symptoms

Migraines manifest themselves through a range of symptoms. The headache pain during a migraine attack can be described as:

  • Intense throbbing often localized to one side of the head
  • May also affect the eyes, temples, face, jaw, or neck
  • This pain intensifies with physical activity, causing sufferers to seek a quiet, dark place to lie down.

Additionally, migraines are commonly accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and throbbing pain on one side of the head. Recognizing these symptoms is the first step towards getting a diagnosis and starting the road to recovery.

Aura Symptoms

Aura symptoms often accompany migraines and involve visual phenomena such as:

  • seeing geometric shapes
  • bright spots
  • flashing lights
  • experiencing temporary vision loss

These visual disturbances are a hallmark of a migraine with aura, including familial hemiplegic migraine and retinal migraine, and can be quite unsettling to those experiencing them for the first time.

In addition to visual changes, migraine auras can involve sensory symptoms like tingling or numbness, usually on one side of the body, and can sometimes lead to speech difficulties. These aura symptoms are temporary, typically lasting less than an hour before fading, and often occur prior to the headache phase of a migraine.

Causes and Triggers of Migraines

What triggers a migraine? It’s a question that has puzzled scientists and sufferers alike. Common triggers for migraines include stress, lack of or too much sleep, and dietary choices. Specific foods known to trigger migraines include aged cheeses and processed foods due to their contents.

Environmental factors that can provoke migraines include:

  • Sensory stimuli, like exposure to bright lights or intense smells
  • Physical exertion, including activities like excessive exercise or sexual activity
  • Environmental changes like weather or barometric pressure shifts

Risk Factors

Certain factors increase the likelihood of experiencing migraines. Genetics play a significant role, with individuals having a family history of migraines being at a significantly increased risk of developing them. This means if your parents or siblings suffer from migraines, you are more likely to suffer from them too.

Demographics also play a role in when migraines occur. Adult women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men, largely due to hormonal fluctuations such as those occurring during menstrual periods, pregnancy, and perimenopause. Age is a significant factor too; migraines often begin in adolescence and peak during the 30s, becoming less frequent and severe with time.

Finally, obesity is known to increase the risk of suffering from migraines, implying that maintaining a healthy weight can contribute to reduced migraine risk.

Diagnosing Migraines: What to Expect

Getting a migraine diagnosis is an intricate process that involves a detailed review of the patient’s symptoms, such as frequency, intensity, and duration of headaches, and a comprehensive medical history and physical examination. This meticulous approach helps to differentiate migraines from other headache types.

The process may also include neurological exams assessing the patient’s mental status, motor strength, vision, reflexes, and cranial nerve function. Additional tests like MRI scans and MRAs can be used to rule out other conditions and examine brain structures and blood vessels for potential contributors to migraine symptoms.

To further aid the diagnosis of medication overuse headache, patients are often advised to maintain a migraine diary, recording the occurrences, triggers, and treatment effectiveness of their headache attacks.

Differential Diagnosis

Differential diagnosis is a crucial part of diagnosing migraines. Conditions such as tension-type headaches and cluster headaches are included in the differential diagnosis for migraines. The symptoms of these conditions can mimic those of migraines, making accurate diagnosis a complex but necessary task.

In some cases, doctors may need to distinguish migraines from disorders such as temporal arteritis or acute glaucoma by evaluating unique symptoms or conducting additional diagnostic tests. Thorough diagnosis is vital in ensuring that the correct acute treatment plan, which may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, is put into place.

Preventing Migraine Attacks: Tips and Strategies

Preventing migraine attacks is possible with a few lifestyle adjustments, which can be considered as a form of preventive treatment. Maintaining a regular sleep and eating routine can effectively prevent migraine attacks. Staying hydrated and keeping a headache diary are non-pharmacological approaches to managing migraines.

Regular exercise is beneficial in reducing the risk of migraine attacks. Similarly, relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation can help decrease the frequency of migraines. Additionally, preventive medications, when taken regularly, aid in stopping the symptoms and preventing migraines from recurring.

Resources and Support for Migraine Sufferers

Living with migraines can be challenging, but you’re not alone. Organizations like Migraine & Headache Australia offer support to individuals suffering from migraines, helping them connect and cope with their condition.

Through the National Headache Register, individuals can actively support migraine research by aiding in the raising of funds. Migraine & Headache Australia also connects headache or migraine sufferers with Australian Universities and research institutions for participating in research. These organizations and support networks play a crucial role in providing assistance to those affected by migraines.


In summary, migraines are a complex and multifaceted condition, with various types, symptoms, triggers, and risk factors. Accurate diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment and management. Preventive strategies and a supportive community can make a significant difference in coping with this condition. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and with the right knowledge and support, you can navigate the stormy seas of migraines with resilience and strength.