What are migraine headaches?

Migraines are painful, throbbing headaches that last from 4 to 72 hours. When you have a migraine, it may be so painful that you aren't able to do your usual activities. But migraines can be treated. And even though they make you feel bad, they don't cause long-term damage.


Migraine Headaches

Areas of pain associated with migraine headaches

Symptoms of a migraine can include:

  • Throbbing pain on one side of the head. But you can have pain on both sides.
  • Pain behind one of your eyes.
  • Moderate to very bad pain. The pain may be so bad that you can't do any of your usual activities.
  • Pain that gets worse with routine physical activity.
  • Pain that gets worse when you're around light, noise, and sometimes smells.

Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, or both.


What causes migraine headaches?

Experts aren't sure what causes migraines. They believe that changes in the activity of brain cells may lead to inflammation in certain nerves, which causes pain. Migraines often run in families, so genetics may play a role for some people. Some things, called triggers, can cause a migraine to start.


Preventing migraine headaches

You can do things to help prevent migraine headaches. Try these tips.

  • Keep a daily headache diary.

    It can help you find out what triggers your migraines.

  • Avoid your migraine triggers.

    Triggers include changes in daily routine, foods, hormones, medicines, lights, odors, or other things in the environment. Triggers add up. So the fewer triggers you have at one time, the better your chance of preventing a migraine.

  • Live a healthy lifestyle.
    • Get regular sleep.
    • Eat healthy foods at regular times.
    • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
    • Avoid foods that may trigger your headaches.
  • Get regular exercise.

    But be careful to not push yourself too hard. It may trigger a headache.

  • Take medicines that prevent migraines.
  • Don't take medicine for headache pain too often.

    Talk to your doctor if you are taking medicine more than 2 days a week to stop a headache. Taking medicine too often may cause medicine-overuse headaches.

  • Find healthy ways to cope with stress.

    Migraines are most common during or right after stressful times. Try finding ways to reduce stress like practicing mindfulness or deep breathing exercises.

  • Ask your doctor about trying herbs and supplements.

    Some people find that magnesium and riboflavin (vitamin B2) help prevent migraine headaches.

  • Try acupuncture or biofeedback.

    Some people find that these can help reduce how many migraines they have or how bad the migraines are.


How are migraine headaches diagnosed?

To diagnose migraines, your doctor will do an exam and ask questions about your personal and family history. Your doctor will ask how many headaches you have, how long they last, and what symptoms you have. There are no tests that can diagnose migraines.

Migraines can be hard to diagnose. Their symptoms are like those of other types of headaches. For example, many people have been diagnosed with sinus headaches when they actually have migraines.

It's likely that you are having migraine headaches if they happen often and interfere with your daily life.

Your doctor will decide if you need to have tests to find out if your headaches are caused by another health problem. You may have an MRI, a CT scan, or a lumbar puncture.


How are migraine headaches treated?

You can't cure migraines. But you can use medicines and other treatments to feel better. Finding and avoiding the things that trigger your headaches may also help.

The goal of treatment is to reduce how often you get migraines and to stop the headaches with the fewest drug side effects.

For mild to moderate migraines, you may first want to try over-the-counter pain relievers. They have fewer side effects. And they cost less than other medicines. But if they don't help, you may need prescription medicines.

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to stop or to prevent a migraine.

If treatment doesn't help your migraines, you and your doctor may make changes. You may try different medicines, a new mix of medicines, or different doses. Sometimes, treatments that don't use medicines are tried. It may take some time to find the right treatment to help you.

When to Call

Recurring migraine headache: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have a sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a fever and a stiff neck.
  • You have new or worse nausea and vomiting, or you cannot keep down food or fluids.
  • Your headache gets much worse.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your headaches get worse, happen more often, or change in some way.
  • You have new symptoms.
  • You have any problems with your medicine, your medicine isn't helping your headaches, or you are using your medicine more often than prescribed.
  • Your life is disrupted by your headaches. For example, you often miss work, school, or other activities.
  • You are not getting better as expected.


Caring for yourself when you have a migraine headache

There are some things you can do when you feel a migraine starting.

  • Stop what you are doing, and take your medicine.

    Don't wait for the migraine to get worse. Take your medicine exactly as your doctor told you to. Keep your medicine with you at all times so you are ready when a headache starts.

  • Rest in a quiet, dark room until your headache is gone.

    Close your eyes, and try to relax or go to sleep. Don't watch TV or read.

  • Put a cold, moist cloth or cold pack on the painful area.

    Leave it there for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the cold pack and your skin.

  • Relax your muscles.

    Have someone gently massage your neck and shoulders.

  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you aren't taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • Don't take medicine for headache pain too often.

    Talk to your doctor if you are taking medicine more than 2 days a week to stop a headache. Taking too much pain medicine can lead to more headaches. These are called medicine-overuse headaches.

Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.