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The Migraine Continuum (or Spectrum)

Migraine exists on a spectrum, much like autism does, although it is rarely described in those terms. This is an unfortunate oversight. Viewing migraine on a continuum highlights the numerous factors that influence how this illness appears in a person’s life. It also shows all the variables that figure into how migraine can change with an individual’s lifetime.

On one end of the continuum are people who can completely abort a migraine attack within an hour of its onset by taking an over-the-counter painkiller. They aren’t merely calling a bad headache a migraine — their symptoms meet the clinical definition of migraine — they’re just incredibly fortunate to have such a quick fix.

At the other end are people who have massively painful, severely disabling migraine attacks every single day and don’t get relief from any medication. These people are literally bedridden for days — or weeks, or even months — at a time. They are in the minority, but they do exist.

Most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. A person may have only one migraine a year, but it is severe, lasts for a week and doesn’t respond to any treatment. Another person may fit the definition of chronic migraine (15 days with headache each month, with at least eight that are migraine), but can stop any migraine in its tracks with a triptan.

Those are just two examples from the middle part of the spectrum. Frequency, intensity and duration are the three primary aspects of migraine targeted in treatment. These, as well as responsiveness to treatment and degree of debility, are among the variables that come into play when thinking of migraine along a continuum.

The vast number of ways migraine can vary from person to person is astonishing. And yet, underneath these differences, we all have the same diagnosis. Although I firmly believe our similarities outweigh our differences, we can only truly understand another person’s experience of migraine if we consider their unique place on the continuum.

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.


  • CarolK
    2 years ago

    This article makes good points to remember! I’ve had chronic migraine, and my migraines have been severe, but I know I’m lucky because my migraines almost always respond to triptans. With preventative medications and triptans as needed, I am able to function in my daily life. I know there are people who have it worse than I do.

  • amberduntley
    5 years ago

    It’s such a roller coaster – having a “good morning” crash into a level 7 or 8 afternoon, making through a yoga class feeling strong and positive, making it through a day without a nap. It’s amazing what makes me feel like a champion, but it’s also so easy to slip into the depression that comes with pain that won’t cease. I feel like not only is there a migraine continuum, there is one for pain, joy, despair, the ability to seek out successful treatment…it’s helpful to know we are all in this together. Thanks for the piece, Kerrie.

  • Dee
    5 years ago

    So true Kerrie. I have seen mine fluctuate over the years. In my 20’s, a painkiller worked and they appeared less frequently. In my 30’s they became chronic and required more aggressive treatment. Now at 40, they are no longer chronic, but each attack is lasting longer. I’m hesitant to see a doc as I worry abt taking triptans and side effects so I’m back onto my alt therapies which have worked for me before (especially magnesium).

  • Angie
    5 years ago

    Thank you for the information Kerrie. I am so glad I found this site!

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