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Migraine headache

Migraine headaches are a type of headache that some people get repeatedly over time. Migraines are different from other headaches because they occur with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light.

Some people who get migraines have warning symptoms, called an aura, before the actual headache begins. Most people, however, do not have such warning symptoms.

Description of migraine headache

A lot of people get migraines -- about 6 out of 100. The headaches tend to start between the ages of 10 and 46, may run in families, and occur in women more often than men.

Migraines are classified as either "common" or "classic". Common migraines do not have any warning symptoms, while classic migraines do have a warning (the aura). Most migraine patients have the common type.

The exact cause of migraine is not known. Migraine headaches are related to problems with blood flow through parts of the brain. At the start of a migraine, blood vessels in certain areas of the brain constrict (narrow), leading to symptoms like visual disturbances, difficulty speaking, weakness, or numbness. Minutes to hours later, the blood vessels dilate (enlarge), leading to increased blood flow in the brain and a bad headache.

Why these changes in the blood vessels (and blood flow) occur in the brain is not understood. Certain triggers, however, make it more likely for you to get migraines:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Bright lights, loud noises, and certain odors or perfumes
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Smoking or exposure to smoke
  • Skipping meals
  • Alcohol or caffeine
  • Hormonal fluctuations (related to menstrual cycles or use of birth control pills, for example)
  • Tension headaches
  • Certain foods like those containing the amino acid tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, and some beans), chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, some fruits (avocado, banana, and citrus), monosodium glutamate (a food additive commonly called MSG), onions, dairy products, meats containg nitrates (like bacon, hot dogs, and salami), and fermented or pickled foods

Causes of migraine headache

The physiological basis of migraine has proved difficult to uncover. Genetics appear to play a part for many, but not all, people with migraine. There are a multitude of potential triggers for a migraine attack, and recognizing one's own set of triggers is the key to prevention.


The most widely accepted hypothesis of migraine suggests that a migraine attack is precipitated when pain-sensing nerve cells in the brain (called nociceptors) release chemicals called neuropeptides. At least one of the neurotransmitters, substance P, increases the pain sensitivity of other nearby nociceptors.

Other neuropeptides act on the smooth muscle surrounding cranial blood vessels. This smooth muscle regulates blood flow in the brain by relaxing or contracting, thus dilating (enlarging) or constricting the enclosed blood vessels. At the onset of a migraine headache, neuropeptides are thought to cause muscle relaxation, allowing vessel dilation and increased blood flow. Other neuropeptides increase the leakiness of cranial vessels, allowing fluid leak, and promote inflammation and tissue swelling. The pain of migraine is though to result from this combination of increased pain sensitivity, tissue and vessel swelling, and inflammation. The aura seen during a migraine may be related to constriction in the blood vessels that dilate in the headache phase.


Susceptibility to migraine may be inherited. A child of a migraine sufferer has as much as a 50% chance of developing migraine. If both parents are affected, the chance rises to 70%. However, the gene or genes responsible have not been identified, and many cases of migraine have no obvious familial basis. It is likely that whatever genes are involved set the stage for migraine, and that full development requires environmental influences as well.

Triggers of migraine headache

A wide variety of foods, drugs, environmental cues, and personal events are known to trigger migraines. It is not known how most triggers set off the events of migraine, nor why individual migraine sufferers are affected by particular triggers but not others.

Common food triggers include:

  • Cheese
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine products, and caffeine withdrawal
  • Chocolate
  • Intensely sweet foods
  • Dairy products
  • Fermented or pickled foods
  • Citrus fruits
  • Nuts
  • Processed foods, especially those containing nitrites, sulfites, or monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Environmental and event-related triggers include:

  • Stress or time pressure
  • Menstrual periods, menopause
  • Sleep changes or disturbances, oversleeping
  • Prolonged overexertion or uncomfortable posture
  • Hunger or fasting
  • Odors, smoke, or perfume
  • Strong glare or flashing lights.

Drugs which may trigger migraine include:

  • Oral contraceptives
  • Estrogen replacement therapy
  • Nitrates
  • Theophylline
  • Reserpine
  • Nifedipine
  • Indomethicin
  • Cimetidine
  • Decongestant overuse
  • Analgesic overuse
  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal.

Symptoms of migraine headache



Migraine headaches, which can be dull or severe, usually:

  • Feel throbbing, pounding, or pulsating
  • Are worse on one side of the head
  • Last 6 to 48 hours

Symptoms accompanying migraines include:


  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness

An aura is a warning sign that the migraine is coming. The warning sign tends to be a visual disturbance like seeing stars or zigzag lines, having tunnel vision, or a temporary blind spot.

Symptoms that may linger even after the migraine has gone away include:

  • Feeling mentally dull, like your thinking is not clear or sharp

  • Increased need for sleep

  • Neck pain

Migraine without aura may be preceded by elevations in mood or energy level for up to 24 hours before the attack. Other pre-migraine symptoms may include fatigue, depression, and excessive yawning.

Aura most often begins with shimmering, jagged arcs of white or colored light progressing over the visual field in the course of 10-20 minutes. This may be preceded or replaced by dark areas or other visual disturbances. Numbness and tingling is common, especially of the face and hands. These sensations may spread, and may be accompanied by a sensation of weakness or heaviness in the affected limb.

The pain of migraine is often present only on one side of the head, although it may involve both, or switch sides during attacks. The pain is usually throbbing, and may range from mild to incapacitating. It is often accompanied by nausea or vomiting, painful sensitivity to light and sound, and intolerance of food or odors. Blurred vision is common.

Migraine pain tends to intensify over the first 30 minutes to several hours, and may last from several hours to a day or longer. Afterward, the affected person is usually weary, and sensitive to sudden head movements.

Diagnosis of migraine headache

Migraine is diagnosed by a careful medical history. Lab tests and imaging studies such as computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have not been useful for identifying migraine. However, for some patients, those tests may be needed to rule out a brain tumor or other structural causes of migraine headache.

Treatment of migraine headache

Once a migraine begins, the person will usually seek out a dark, quiet room to lessen painful stimuli. Several drugs may be used to reduce the pain and severity of the attack.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful for early and mild headache. NSAIDs include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and others. A recent study concluded that a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine could effectively relieve symptoms for many migraine patients. One such over-the-counter preparation is available as Exedrin Migraine.

More severe or unresponsive attacks may be treated with drugs that act on serotonin receptors in the smooth muscle surrounding cranial blood vessels. Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, constricts these vessels, relieving migraine pain. Drugs that mimic serotonin and bind to these receptors have the same effect. The oldest of them is ergotamine, a derivative of a common grain fungus. Ergotamine and dihydroergotamine are used for both acute and preventive treatment. Derivatives with fewer side effects have come onto the market in the past decade, including sumatriptan (Imitrex). Some of these drugs are available as nasal sprays, intramuscular injections, or rectal suppositories for patients in whom vomiting precludes oral administration. Other drugs used for acute attacks include meperidine and metoclopramide.

Continued use of some anti-migraine drugs can lead to "rebound headache," marked by frequent or chronic headaches, especially in the early morning hours. Rebound headache is avoided by using anti-migraine drugs under a doctor's supervision, with the minimum dose necessary to treat symptoms. Patients with frequent migraines may need preventive therapy.

Alternative treatments for of migraine headache

Alternative treatments are aimed at prevention of migraine. Migraine headaches are often linked with food allergies or intolerances. Identification and elimination of the offending food or foods can decrease the frequency of migraines and/or alleviate these headaches altogether. Herbal therapy with feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) may lessen the frequency of attacks. Learning to increase the flow of blood to the extremities through biofeedback training may allow a patient to prevent some of the vascular changes once a migraine begins. During a migraine, keep the lights low; put the feet in a tub of hot water and place a cold cloth on the occipital region (the back of the head). This draws the blood to the feet and decreases the pressure in the head.


Most people with migraines can bring their attacks under control through recognizing and avoiding triggers, and by use of appropriate drugs when migraine occurs. Some people with severe migraines do not respond to preventive or drug therapy. Migraines usually wane in intensity by age 60 and beyond.


The frequency of migraine may be lessened by avoiding triggers. It is useful to keep a headache journal, recording the particulars and noting possible triggers for each attack. Specific measures which may help include:

  • Eating at regular times, and not skipping meals
  • Reducing the use of caffeine and pain-relievers
  • Restricting physical exertion, especially on hot days
  • Keeping regular sleep hours, but not oversleeping
  • Managing time to avoid stress at work and home.

    Some drugs can be used for migraine prevention, including specific members of these drug classes:

    • Beta blockers
    • Tricyclic antidepressants
    • Calcium channel blockers
    • Anticonvulsants
    • Prozac
    • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO)
    • Serotonin antagonists.

    For most patients, preventive drug therapy is not an appropriate option, since it requires continued use of powerful drugs. However, for women whose migraines coincide with the menstrual period, limited preventive treatment may be effective. Since these drugs are appropriate for patients with other medical conditions, the decision to prescribe them for migraine may be influenced by expected benefit elsewhere


This web site is intended for your own informational purposes only. No person or entity associated with this web site purports to be engaging in the practice of medicine through this medium. The information you receive is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a physician or other health care professional. If you have an illness or medical problem, contact your health care provider.


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