Conditions

Migraine

A migraine is usually an intense headache that occurs at the front or on one side of the head. However, the area of pain can change position during an attack. The pain is usually a severe throbbing sensation.

There are several types of migraine, including:

Migraine with aura: when there is a warning sign, known as aura, before the migraine begins. About a third of people with migraine have this. Warning signs may include visual problems (such as flashing lights) and stiffness in the neck, shoulders or limbs.

Migraine without aura
Migraine without headache: also known as silent migraine, is when an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop.

Migraines affect one in four women and one in 12 men in the UK.

Migraines usually begin in young adults. However, it is possible for migraines to begin later in life

Everyone will experience migraines differently. Some people have attacks frequently, up to several times a week. Other people only have a migraine occasionally.

Some people find that migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers:

Migraines can severely affect your quality of life

However, there are effective treatments, and methods that can help to prevent migraines.

Symptoms accompanying a migraine

Other symptoms commonly associated with a migraine are:

  • Nausea – you may feel queasy and sick; this may be followed by vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity – you may have photophobia (sensitivity to light), phonophobia (sensitivity to sound) and/or osmophobia (sensitivity to smells), which is why many people with a migraine want to rest in a quiet, dark room
  • Poor concentration
  • Sweating
  • Feeling very hot or very cold
  • Abdominal pain (which can sometimes cause diarrhoea)
  • A frequent need to urinate

 

Not everyone experiences these symptoms when they have a migraine, and they do not usually all occur at once.

In some cases, you may experience these symptoms without having a headache.

The symptoms accompanying migraine can last anywhere between four hours and three days. They will usually disappear when the headache goes.

You may feel very tired for up to seven days after a migraine attack.

Symptoms of aura include:

  • Visual problems. You may see flashing lights, zigzag patterns or blind spots
  • Stiffness or a tingling sensation like pins and needles in your neck, shoulders or limbs
  • Problems with co-ordination. You may feel disoriented or off balance
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Loss of consciousness. This only happens in very rare cases

 

Aura symptoms typically start between 15 minutes and one hour before the headache begins. Some people may experience aura with only a mild headache or no headache at all.

Migraines are thought to be caused by changes in the chemicals of the brain
In particular, levels of a type of chemical called serotonin decrease during a migraine.

Low levels of serotonin can make the blood vessels in a part of your brain spasm (suddenly contract), which makes them narrower. This may cause the symptoms of aura. Soon after, the blood vessels dilate (widen), which is thought to cause the headache. The reason for the drop in serotonin is not yet fully understood.

Hormones
Some scientists believe that fluctuating levels of hormones are closely linked to the cause of migraines.

Some women who experience migraines say they are more likely to have an attack around the time of their period. This is known as a menstrual migraine. Just before women have their period, levels of the hormone oestrogen fall.

Women can have menstrual migraines from two days before to three days after the first day of their period. About 1 in 7 women who have migraines only have an attack around the time of their period. This is known as a pure menstrual migraine. Around 6 in 10 women with migraines have attacks at other times too.

Many factors have been identified as triggers for a migraine. These triggers include emotional, physical, dietary, environmental and medicinal factors. They are outlined below.

Emotional triggers:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Shock
  • Depression
  • Excitement

Physical triggers:

  • Tiredness
  • Poor quality of sleep
  • Shift work
  • Poor posture
  • Neck or shoulder tension
  • Travelling for a long period of time
  • Low blood sugar

Dietary triggers:

  • Lack of food (dieting)
  • Delayed or irregular meals
  • Dehydration
  • Alcohol
  • The food additive tyramine
  • Caffeine products, such as tea and coffee
  • Specific foods such as chocolate, citrus fruit and cheese

Environmental triggers:

  • Bright lights
  • Flickering screens, such as a television or computer screen
  • Smoking (or smoky rooms)
  • Loud noises
  • Changes in climate, such as changes in humidity or very cold temperatures
  • Strong smells
  • A stuffy atmosphere

Medicines:

  • Some types of sleeping tablets
  • The contraceptive pill
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is sometimes used to treat the menopause

* The contents of this condition is for information purposes only.