What Is Migraine?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020 | Last updated: September 2023

Migraine is a painful condition that causes severe head pain and many other symptoms. Migraine is often chronic, meaning someone lives with the condition for years. It is also disabling, causing missed school, work, and social events.

Migraine often runs in families and is more common in women than men. It can affect people of all ages and often goes undiagnosed.1-3

Migraine comes in 2 basic types: Migraine without aura and migraine with aura. About 3 out of 4 people have migraine without aura, making it much more common. An attack can last from 4 hours to 3 days if left untreated.1-3

Migraine attacks typically go through 4 phases, although it is possible to have attacks that skip a phase. In fact, it is even possible to have a migraine attack without the headache, or head pain, phase.

What is the difference between migraine and a headache?

Migraine is not just a headache, and attacks can include a variety of symptoms, such as:1-3

  • Throbbing or pulsing pain on 1 side of the head
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

With a headache, the head pain is usually felt on both sides of the head and is more often a dull ache. Nausea and vomiting are not common. Most people with a headache can continue normal activities, though it might be unpleasant.

What are the different types of migraine?

The International Headache Society recognizes several different types of migraine, including:1

What is a migraine specialist?

Some doctors specialize in treating migraine. Many are neurologists, or doctors who specialize in treating diseases of the nerves and nervous system. Migraine is usually diagnosed with a physical exam and talking through a person’s medical history.

What are common migraine triggers?

Migraine triggers can vary from person to person, like other aspects of migraine. The most common migraine triggers include:1-3

Some people find that caffeine is a migraine trigger, while others can actually find relief from small amounts of caffeine during an attack. Because food triggers can be hard to figure out, a migraine elimination diet can help identify some likely triggers. Many people with migraine find they are triggered by certain cheeses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), alcohol, and foods that are high in nitrates.

Common migraine treatment options

There is no “one-size-fits all” migraine treatment. What works for 1 person may not work for another. However, there are hundreds of treatment options, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs, and complementary and alternative therapies.

Migraine treatments are usually grouped as:

  • Preventive treatments (drugs you take regularly, often daily, to stop a migraine before it starts; often for people with frequent migraines)
  • Abortive treatments (drugs you take early in an attack to shorten how long it lasts and how severe the symptoms are)
  • Rescue medicines (drugs you take when abortive medicines do not work)

Keeping a migraine journal will help your doctor better understand how often your migraine attacks occur, how severe the symptoms are, and which drugs may work best.

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