What is a Migraine?

Migraine is a medical condition. Most people who suffer from migraines get headaches that can be quite severe. A migraine headache is usually an intense, throbbing pain on one, or sometimes, both sides of the head. Most people with migraine headache feel the pain in the temples or behind one eye or ear, although any part of the head can be involved. Besides pain, migraine also can cause nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also may see spots or flashing lights or have a temporary loss of vision.

Migraine can occur any time of the day, though it often starts in the morning. The pain can last a few hours or up to one or two days. Some people get migraines once or twice a week. Others, only once or twice a year. Most of the time, migraines are not a threat to your overall health. But migraine attacks can interfere with your day-to-day life.

We don’t know what causes migraine, but some things are more common in people who have them:

  • Most often, migraine affects people between the ages of 15 and 55.
  • Most people have a family history of migraine or of disabling headache.
  • They are more common in women.
  • Migraine often becomes less severe and less frequent with age.

How common are migraines?

Migraine pain and symptoms affect 29.5 million Americans. Migraine is the most common form of disabling headache that sends patients to see their doctors.


What causes migraines?

The exact cause of migraine is not fully understood. Most researchers think that migraine is due to abnormal changes in levels of substances that are naturally produced in the brain. When the levels of these substances increase, they can cause inflammation. This inflammation then causes blood vessels in the brain to swell and press on nearby nerves, causing pain.

Genes also have been linked to migraine. People who get migraines may have abnormal genes that control the functions of certain brain cells.

Experts do know that people with migraines react to a variety of factors and events, called triggers. These triggers can vary from person to person and don’t always lead to migraine. A combination of triggers—not a single thing or event—is more likely to set off an attack. A person’s response to triggers also can vary from migraine to migraine. Many women with migraine tend to have attacks triggered by:

  • lack of or too much sleep
  • skipped meals
  • bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors
  • hormone changes during the menstrual cycle
  • stress and anxiety, or relaxation after stress
  • weather changes
  • alcohol (often red wine)
  • caffeine (too much or withdrawal)
  • foods that contain nitrates, such as hot dogs and lunch meats
  • foods that contain MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer found in fast foods, broths, seasonings, and spices
  • foods that contain tyramine, such as aged cheeses, soy products, fava beans, hard sausages, smoked fish, and
  • Chianti win
  • aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®)

To pinpoint your migraine triggers, keep a headache diary. Each day you have a migraine headache, put that in your diary. Also write down the:

  1. The time of day your headache started
  2. where you were and what you were doing when the migraine started
  3. what you ate or drank 24 hours before the attack
  4. each day you have your period, not just the first day (This can allow you and your doctor to see if your headaches occur at the same or similar time as your period.)

Talk with your doctor about what sets off your headaches to help find the right treatment for you.

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