Migraine Headaches

What is a migraine?

A migraine (MY-grain) is a headache that is severe and can be disabling. The pain of migraines can feel intense, throbbing, and pounding. The pain can be in your forehead, temple, ear, jaw, or around the eye. Most often, migraines start on one side of your head. The pain can then spread to the other side. Migraine attacks can last for a few hours, a few days, or even weeks. Attacks can happen several times a week or once every few years.

What are symptoms of a migraine?

Migraine headaches usually have these symptoms:

  • Severe pain, usually on one side of the head
  • Pain that is throbbing or pulsating
  • Pain that gets worse during normal activities
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Flashing lights in front of eyes
  • Other changes in vision

What causes migraines?

Doctors do not know the exact cause of migraines. There is some evidence that migraines are inherited in families. A person can be born with a tendency to get migraines. This person is sensitive to “triggers” that may not affect other people. A trigger is anything that sets off a migraine attack. For example, stress, changes in environment or weather, bright light or sunlight, and certain foods can act as triggers.

Some foods that seem to trigger migraines are:

  • Nuts
  • Chocolate
  • Processed meat, such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami
  • Aspartame, such as Nutrasweet or Equal
  • Yogurt and other dairy products

There are many other trigger foods. Foods that bring on migraine attacks in some people do not affect other people who get migraines. Each person has his or her own triggers.

Is your headache a migraine?

If you often get intense headaches, you should see your doctor. While there is no cure for migraines, symptoms can be controlled. To learn if your headaches are migraines, your doctor will use some of these tests:

Physical exam. Your doctor will check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, eyes, and head to be sure that no other problem is causing your pain. He or she will ask you detailed questions about your headaches. The doctor will want to learn how frequent and how severe your headaches are.

  • Blood tests. No blood test can prove that you have migraines. Blood tests can help rule out other causes for your headaches.
  • Imaging tests. Some tests take pictures of your brain to rule out serious problems such as tumors. These tests are MRI and CT scans.

What is the treatment for migraines?

The treatment for migraine headaches has improved in recent years. Several kinds of medicine are now available. Your doctor will tell you which type of medicine is best for you.

Some medicines help you live with a migraine attack. These medicines are called interventional (IN-ter-VEN-shun-ul). You take an interventional medicine when a headache is in progress. This type of medicine helps stop the pain, nausea, and other symptoms.

Other medicines help to prevent an attack and are called preventive. You take preventive medicines every day to keep a headache from starting.

For More Information

Ask your doctor about other treatment options. Your doctor can give you more information about the kinds of medicines available.

Here are some other resources for information about headaches and migraines:

National Headache Foundation
Toll-free: 1-888-NHF (643)-5552

American Migraine Foundation (AMF)

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