Overview

What is a migraine? A Mayo Clinic expert explains

Learning about migraine disorder can be intimidating. Amaal Starling, M.D., a neurologist at Mayo Clinic, walks you through the facts, the questions, and the answers to help you better understand this condition.

Hi, I'm Dr. Amaal Starling, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic specializing in headache disorders. In this video, we will cover the basics of migraine. What is it? Who gets it, the symptoms, the diagnosis, and most importantly, the treatment. Whether you're looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we are here to give you the best information available. There is a lot of stigma around migraine. That it's just a headache and that it's no big deal. But migraine is a genetic neurologic disease. It affects each person differently with a wide range of disease severity. Some have infrequent attacks, but others may have frequent disabling attacks. Expecting someone to push through or just take your mind off of it is never good advice.

Who gets it?

Migraine is very common, affecting one in five women, one in 16 men, and even one in 11 children. Migraine attacks are three times more prevalent in women, likely as a result of hormonal differences. Certainly genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of migraine disease. And since it is genetic, it is hereditary. Meaning if a parent has migraine, there's about a 50 percent chance that a child may develop migraine as well. If you have migraine, certain factors can trigger an attack. However, this does not mean that if you get a migraine attack, that it's their fault, that you should feel any guilt or shame for your symptoms. Hormonal changes, specifically fluctuations and estrogen that can occur during menstrual periods, pregnancy and perimenopause can trigger a migraine attack. Other known triggers include certain medications, drinking alcohol, especially red wine, drinking too much caffeine, stress. Sensory stimulation such as bright lights or strong smells. Sleep changes, weather changes, skipping meals or even certain foods like aged cheeses and processed foods.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom of migraine is the intense throbbing head pain. This pain can be so severe that it interferes with your day-to-day activities. It can also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. However, a migraine can look very different from one person to another. Some people may get prodrome symptoms, the beginning of a migraine attack. These can be subtle warnings such as constipation, mood changes, food cravings, neck stiffness, increased urination, or even frequent yawning. Sometimes people may not even realize that these are warning signs of a migraine attack. In about a third of people living with migraine, aura might occur before or even during a migraine attack. Aura is the term that we use for these temporary reversible neurologic symptoms. They're usually visual, but they can include other neurologic symptoms as well. They typically built up over several minutes and they can last for up to an hour. Examples of migraine aura include visual phenomena such as seeing geometric shapes or bright spots, or flashing lights, or even loss of vision. Some people may develop numbness or a pins and needles sensation on one side of their face or body, or even difficulty speaking. At the end of a migraine attack, you might feel drained, confused, or washed out for up to a day. This is called the post-drome phase.

How is it diagnosed?

Migraine is a clinical diagnosis. That means the diagnosis is based on the symptoms reported by the patient. There is no lab test or imaging study that can rule in or rule out migraine. Based on screening diagnostic criteria, if you have the symptoms of headache associated with sensitivity to light, a decrease in function and nausea, you likely have migraine. Please see your healthcare professional for the possible diagnosis of migraine and migraine specific treatment.

How is it treated?

Because there is such a wide spectrum of disease severity with migraine, there's also a wide spectrum of management plans. Some people need what we call an acute or a rescue treatment for infrequent migraine attacks. Whereas other people need both an acute and a preventive treatment plan. Preventive treatment reduces the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. It might be a daily oral medication, a monthly injection, or even injections and infusions that are delivered once every three months. The right medications combined with lifestyle changes can be helpful to improve the lives of those living with migraine. There are ways to manage and minimize the triggers of migraine using the SEEDS method. The S is for sleep. Improve your sleep routine by sticking to a specific schedule, reducing screens and distractions at night. E is for exercise. Start small, even five minutes once a week and slowly increase the duration and frequency to make it a habit. And stick to movement and activities that you enjoy. E is for eat healthy, well-balanced meals at least three times a day and stay hydrated. The D is for diary. Track your migraine days and symptoms in a diary. Use a calendar, an agenda, or an app. Bring that diary with you to your follow-up appointments with your doctor to review. The S is for stress management to help manage migraine attacks triggered by stress. Consider therapy, mindfulness, biofeedback, and other relaxation techniques that work for you.

What now?

Migraine attacks can be disabling, but there are ways to manage the disease and to empower yourself to get the care and the support that you need. First. We need to end the stigma around migraine. It is not just a headache, it is a genetic neurologic disease. Next, talk to your healthcare professional about your symptoms. Eradicate the words "I'm fine" from your vocabulary and be honest with your healthcare professional, your employer, your loved ones, about how you're feeling as well as the kind of support that you need. Make yourself a top priority when you're having a migraine attack and reduce the likelihood of attacks through lifestyle adjustments. Have a consistent schedule, get adequate sleep, and learn strategies to cope with the stresses of life using mindfulness and meditation. Empower yourself to manage migraine with lifestyle changes and migraine specific treatment options. Together you and your doctor can manage the disease of migraine. If you'd like to learn more about migraine, watch or other related videos or visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.

A migraine is a headache that can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head. It's often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can last for hours to days, and the pain can be so severe that it interferes with your daily activities.

For some people, a warning symptom known as an aura occurs before or with the headache. An aura can include visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots, or other disturbances, such as tingling on one side of the face or in an arm or leg and difficulty speaking.

Medications can help prevent some migraines and make them less painful. The right medicines, combined with self-help remedies and lifestyle changes, might help.

Symptoms

Migraines, which affect children and teenagers as well as adults, can progress through four stages: prodrome, aura, attack and post-drome. Not everyone who has migraines goes through all stages.

Prodrome

One or two days before a migraine, you might notice subtle changes that warn of an upcoming migraine, including:

  • Constipation
  • Mood changes, from depression to euphoria
  • Food cravings
  • Neck stiffness
  • Increased urination
  • Fluid retention
  • Frequent yawning

Aura

For some people, an aura might occur before or during migraines. Auras are reversible symptoms of the nervous system. They're usually visual but can also include other disturbances. Each symptom usually begins gradually, builds up over several minutes and can last up to 60 minutes.

Examples of migraine auras include:

  • Visual phenomena, such as seeing various shapes, bright spots or flashes of light
  • Vision loss
  • Pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg
  • Weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body
  • Difficulty speaking

Attack

A migraine usually lasts from 4 to 72 hours if untreated. How often migraines occur varies from person to person. Migraines might occur rarely or strike several times a month.

During a migraine, you might have:

  • Pain usually on one side of your head, but often on both sides
  • Pain that throbs or pulses
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch
  • Nausea and vomiting

Post-drome

After a migraine attack, you might feel drained, confused and washed out for up to a day. Some people report feeling elated. Sudden head movement might bring on the pain again briefly.

When to see a doctor

Migraines are often undiagnosed and untreated. If you regularly have signs and symptoms of migraine, keep a record of your attacks and how you treated them. Then make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your headaches.

Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different.

See your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have any of the following signs and symptoms, which could indicate a more serious medical problem:

  • An abrupt, severe headache like a thunderclap
  • Headache with fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, double vision, numbness or weakness in any part of the body, which could be a sign of a stroke
  • Headache after a head injury
  • A chronic headache that is worse after coughing, exertion, straining or a sudden movement
  • New headache pain after age 50

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Causes

Though migraine causes aren't fully understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role.

Changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway, might be involved. So might imbalances in brain chemicals — including serotonin, which helps regulate pain in your nervous system.

Researchers are studying the role of serotonin in migraines. Other neurotransmitters play a role in the pain of migraine, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP).

Migraine triggers

There are a number of migraine triggers, including:

  • Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen, such as before or during menstrual periods, pregnancy and menopause, seem to trigger headaches in many women.

    Hormonal medications, such as oral contraceptives, also can worsen migraines. Some women, however, find that their migraines occur less often when taking these medications.

  • Drinks. These include alcohol, especially wine, and too much caffeine, such as coffee.
  • Stress. Stress at work or home can cause migraines.
  • Sensory stimuli. Bright or flashing lights can induce migraines, as can loud sounds. Strong smells — such as perfume, paint thinner, secondhand smoke and others — trigger migraines in some people.
  • Sleep changes. Missing sleep or getting too much sleep can trigger migraines in some people.
  • Physical factors. Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, might provoke migraines.
  • Weather changes. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
  • Medications. Oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can aggravate migraines.
  • Foods. Aged cheeses and salty and processed foods might trigger migraines. So might skipping meals.
  • Food additives. These include the sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in many foods.

Risk factors

Several factors make you more prone to having migraines, including:

  • Family history. If you have a family member with migraines, then you have a good chance of developing them too.
  • Age. Migraines can begin at any age, though the first often occurs during adolescence. Migraines tend to peak during your 30s, and gradually become less severe and less frequent in the following decades.
  • Sex. Women are three times more likely than men to have migraines.
  • Hormonal changes. For women who have migraines, headaches might begin just before or shortly after onset of menstruation. They might also change during pregnancy or menopause. Migraines generally improve after menopause.

Complications

Taking painkillers too often can trigger serious medication-overuse headaches. The risk seems to be highest with aspirin, acetaminophen and caffeine combinations. Overuse headaches may also occur if you take aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) for more than 14 days a month or triptans, sumatriptan (Imitrex, Tosymra) or rizatriptan (Maxalt, Maxalt-MLT) for more than nine days a month.

Medication-overuse headaches occur when medications stop relieving pain and begin to cause headaches. You then use more pain medication, which continues the cycle.

Migraine care at Mayo Clinic

July 02, 2021
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