Monday, August 02, 2010

Migraine 101: What is a Migraine?

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Everyone gets a headache from time to time. How is migraine disease different? How do you know if what you are experiencing is a migraine? What are the characteristics of a migraine?

This is old hat for many of us, but every day someone experiences a migraine for the first time and not only doesn't know what to expect, but also may not realize it's something other than a run-of-the-mill headache.

Migraine is a neurological disease. Most people experiencing a migraine attack experience head pain, but not all do, and the head pain is just one aspect of the attack.

Common Symptoms Associated with Migraine:
  • one-sided head pain
  • nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • neck pain
  • sensitivity to light
  • sensitivity to sound
  • sensitivity to smells
  • pain that worsens with physical activity 
  • hot flashes or chills
  • dizziness
  • vertigo
  • confusion
  • depression and/or anxiety 
  • yawning
  • fatigue
  • irritability

Stages of a Migraine Attack:

(1) Prodome - Only 30-40% of migraine sufferers experience this phase. For those who do this early warning can give them a leg up on using their treatment medications before the migraine attack becomes very severe. This phase is characterized by mood changes, cravings, neck stiffness, fatigue and yawning.

(2) Aura - About 20-25% of migraineurs experience aura. Again, having this early warning lets the patient know an attack is coming and to take treatment medication right away.

Common auras include:
  • visual disturbances such as flashing lights, spots or blurry vision
  • smelling things that aren't there 
  • confusion 
  • difficulty finding words 
  • dizziness 
  • hearing things that aren't there 
  • extreme sensitivity to touch

(3) Headache - The painful part of a migraine attack can range from mild to very severe. The pain is usually one sided. The attack can last anywhere from 1 to 72 hours. If the attack lasts longer than 72 hours you should seek medical attention. The symptoms listed above tend to arrive during this phase of the attack.

(4) Postdome - This is the recovery period. Many migraine sufferers say they experience something like a hangover after the attack has ended. Patients can experience fatigue, diminished intelligence, depressed mood or feelings of euphoria.


Diagnosing someone with migraine is basically a process of elimination. There are no tests that will tell you someone is experiencing migraine, so doctors try to eliminate other possible explanations for the patient's symptoms. Patients are often given a routine battery of tests, including an MRI. Since symptoms can vary so widely from person to person diagnosis can be difficult.


About 36 million Americans live with migraine: 18% of women and 6% of men. Nearly one in four households have a member who lives with migraine. As many as 14 million Americans live with near-daily migraine symptoms. About 10% of school aged children are migraineurs. The World Health Organization considers migraine one of the 20 most disabling conditions.

Anatomy of a Migraine
Migraine: Symptoms
Migraine Issues - What are the symptoms of migraine?
Migraine Research Foundation: About Migraine
American Migraine Foundation: About Migraine

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DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site constitutes medical or legal advice. I am a patient who is engaged and educated and enjoys sharing my experiences and news about migraines, pain and depression. Please consult your own health care providers for advice on your unique situation.