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Migraine Causes, Migraine Triggers

Many people come to looking for information on migraine causes, but the search terminology can lead you astray. You’re probably looking for why you had a migraine yesterday – maybe if you ate something to make the migraine happen or if exercise could have been the culprit. Try searching for “migraine triggers” rather than “migraine causes.”

The language of migraine can be tricky and confusing. This is in part because “migraine” is used to describe both the underlying disorder and the episodes of the illness. (See Migraine or Migraines? if you’re a word nerd like me and want to know the difference.) What many people think of as migraine causes, headache specialists and patient advocates call triggers.

The Cause of Migraine
Migraine is caused by an inherited neurological disorder that makes the brain to be hyper-reactive to stimuli. (That’s a very brief definition and there’s lots of research into the physiology of migraine still to be done.) This underlying neurological disorder is what causes a person to have migraine attacks. Without it, a person cannot have the episodes of pain, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, etc. that happen during a migraine attack.

Migraine Triggers
Triggers are what set a migraine attack into motion. There are many potential triggers and they can be difficult to track down. Different people have different triggers and something that’s a trigger one day may not be three days later. Triggers are also thought to be additive – maybe weather isn’t normally a trigger for you, but it is if the barometric pressure changes on a day when your sleep schedule is out of whack and you missed a couple meals.

The migraine brain is highly reactive to changes and sensory stimuli. Any change to your routine – the time you go to sleep and wake up, exercising more vigorously than usual, eating at erratic times – can trigger a migraine attack. Sensory stimuli can also trigger migraines, usually sights, sounds and smells are the culprit. Bright or flickering lights, loud noises, or perfume can all be triggers. Whether any of these things is a trigger for you depends on your individual sensitivities and what other potential triggers you’ve been exposed to. A woman’s menstrual cycle can also influence her reactivity to stimuli (and be a trigger all on its own).

Since not every person reacts to every trigger, many find a migraine diary more helpful than trying to avoid every potential trigger. A migraine diary can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Writing down the time and length of your migraine and what possible trigger you could have been exposed to is enough for many people to figure out their triggers.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • monkeybrew
    5 years ago

    Kerrie, thank you for this post! I often lament about the lack of understanding around the cause of migraine. Of course with daily migraines I do tend to get a bit distracted from any line of thought!
    Because my migraines are daily it has been a challenge to clearly identify triggers. I have, over the years, been able to positively ID some from a line-up. Fluorescent lighting is a trigger that seems to be everywhere! Alcohol is another trigger. Similar to some of your posts both here and at thedailyheadache website, I have noticed that eating can bring on and/or aggravate a migraine. Coffee is another trigger. Beyond these I often joke that the act of “being” is a trigger. If we cannot laugh we would curl up in a ball in the corner, right?
    Slightly off topic is the aspect of time, by which I mean time of day. For the longest time my migraines would begin somewhere in the early afternoon. With some recent changes in medications and an inpatient stay in Chelsea Michigan this pattern has shifted a bit. The migraines now seem to come a little later in the afternoon. Unfortunately, some days, like today, the migraines have started to awaken me in the early morning. Some mornings I am awake at 2am. This morning I “slept in” untill 3:30am!
    If nothing else, migraine is complex and vexing puzzle. I just wish it did not come with the pain of the daily migraine attacks.
    Again, thanks for the clarifying and thought-provoking article.

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