Migraine is a neurological condition (meaning that it’s a disease of the nervous system) that is associated with severe headaches and other symptoms in the nervous system and body. Migraine headaches can be very intense, often causing pain that throbs and pulses. Headaches aren’t the only symptom that can affect people with migraine: unlike other kinds of headaches (for example, tension and sinus headaches), they often come with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.
Migraine is common―about 12 percent of Americans have this condition. Migraine attacks happen in several stages, and untreated attacks usually last between 4 and 72 hours. They can be debilitating and may interfere with all areas of life: home, work, school, and beyond.
Migraine symptoms are different for different people. Some common symptoms include:
- Headache (often on one side of the head, but sometimes on both sides)
- Pain that gets worse when you move
- Nausea and sometimes vomiting
- Being unusually sensitive to light, sounds, and smells
- Feeling weak or dizzy
- The two most common types of migraine are:
- Migraine with aura. Migraine auras can include changes to your visual field such as flashing lights, zigzag lines, or blind spots, as well as nonvisual symptoms such as brain fog, a numb or tingling sensation, or changes to your senses of smell, taste, and touch.
- Migraine without aura. Migraine without aura is the most common type. In these kinds of migraine attacks, you won’t experience aura but will have other migraine symptoms (for example, headache and nausea).
Who Can Have Migraine?
Anyone can have migraine, including children. Women are three times more likely than men to experience it.
Most people with migraine:
- Have their first attack before age 40
- Have a family member who also has migraine
People with medical diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and epilepsy may also be more likely to have migraine.
Talk to your doctor if you’re having migraine-like symptoms. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, your medical history, and your family’s health history. They may do some tests to find out whether the headaches have a cause other than migraine (like a sinus infection, muscle tension, or another medical disorder). There is no cure for migraine, but there are pharmacological (drug-based) and nonpharmacological ways to make living with migraine easier.
Keep a migraine diary. Knowing your triggers is a first step to learning how to cope with migraine. Use a diary to keep track of when you’re having migraine attacks and what’s happening around that time to identify your personal triggers. When you have a migraine attack, write down:
- When the pain started (day and time)
- What you were doing when the pain started
- What you ate and drank in the 24 hours before the attack
- How many hours you slept the previous night
- The symptoms you had during the attack
- What you did during the attack, including any medicines you took
- When the pain stopped
Sometimes migraine attacks can be prevented before they happen with a combination of medications and lifestyle changes.
Talk to your doctor about medications and therapies to prevent migraine attacks. Your doctor might recommend migraine-specific medications or antidepressants, blood pressure medicines, and antiseizure medicines. These are usually medicines that you need to take every day. Your doctor may also suggest certain vitamins or minerals that might help.
You can also get relief during an attack by:
- Resting in a quiet, dark room
- Closing your eyes
- Cooling your forehead with a wet cloth or an ice pack
- Drinking lots of liquids
With the right combination of prevention and treatment, most people can find some relief.
Information from: National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and American Headache Society
Helping Friends and Family
Teamwork, Support Play a Role in Relief
Education and communication can empower people with migraines. Many people with migraines experience stigma. For example, others may not believe their migraine pain is real or that bad, and may treat them negatively because of it.
“Stigma is very important in understanding how someone with migraines interacts with other people around them,” said Michael Oshinsky, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “They’ve often experienced times in their life when other people do not take their neurological disorder seriously. For example, saying, ‘You can just work through it, it’s just a headache,’ when that’s not the case.”
Stigma can make people hesitant to take time off during a bad migraine and sometimes hesitant to seek treatment. But getting care and consulting a health professional should be a priority for migraine sufferers. Here are three things Dr. Oshinsky recommends that can empower people with migraines:
1. Educate yourself. “The individual suffering from migraines will gain a lot from educating themselves about this disorder,” Dr. Oshinsky says. He suggests seeking out NINDS resources online to learn about migraines. The more you know about them, the more likely you are to seek help when you need it.
2. Educate others. “Once the person feels educated and understands the complexity of the neurological disorder that migraine is, they can talk to other people when they’re experiencing a migraine,” Dr. Oshinsky says. “They can discuss the other associated symptoms and the intense pain of their experience. That will help other people to understand.”
3. Be honest when you feel pain. It’s important to be honest about what symptoms you feel when you have a migraine. When people realize you are experiencing pain so intense you get nauseous, or symptoms like confusion and sensitivity to light and sound, “the idea of ‘It’s just a headache’ doesn’t pan out,” Dr. Oshinsky says.