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What is a migraine headache?

The pain of a migraine headache usually begins gradually, intensifies over minutes to one or more hours and resolves gradually at the end of the attack. The headache is typically dull, deep and steady when mild to moderate in severity; it becomes throbbing or pulsatile when severe. Migraine headaches are worsened with moving the head rapidly, light, sneezing, straining, constant motion or physical exertion; many migraine sufferers try to get relief by lying down in a darkened, quiet room. In 60 to 70 percent of people, the pain occurs on only one side of the head. In adults, a migraine headache usually lasts a few hours, but can last from four to 72 hours.

Migraine headaches are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting as well as sensitivity to light and noise. Between 10 and 20 percent of people with migraine, also experience nasal stuffiness and runny nose, tearing, or changes in skin tone or body temperature. The symptoms of a migraine attack may be severe and alarming but in most cases, there are no lasting health effects when the attack ends.

Migraine is the most common cause of disabling headache, affecting 35 million Americans. About 15% of women and 6% of men experience migraine. The condition is often hereditary; if you have migraines, it is very likely that another family member suffers from them too.

Migraine is characterized by recurrent attacks, with pain often on one side of the head that may be throbbing or pounding, accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, sound and head movement. Although migraine can occur at any time of day or night, they tend to affect people in the morning.

Episodes can last from several hours to several days and often are disabling. During the attack, pain may travel from one part of the head to another and may radiate down the neck into the shoulder. Scalp tenderness occurs in the majority of patients during or after an attack. Signs and symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • Throbbing or pounding pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Worsening of pain with movement
  • Visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots in your vision
  • Abnormal body sensations, called paresthesias, such as tingling, numbing or prickling
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness or vertigo

Migraines can be triggered by stress, worry, menstrual periods, birth control pills, physical exertion, fatigue, lack of sleep, hunger, head trauma, and certain foods or drinks that contain chemicals such as nitrites, glutamate, aspartate, or tyramine.

Certain medications and chemicals can also trigger a migraine, including nitroglycerin (used to treat chest pain), estrogens, hydralazine (used to treat high blood pressure), perfumes, smoke and organic solvents with a strong odor.

For more information on migraines:

Mayo Clinic: Migraines
WebMD: Migraines