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Migraine Headache

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Migraine is a type of headache marked by severe head pain lasting several hours or more.


Migraine is an intense, often debilitating type of headache. Migraines affect as many as 24 million people in the United States, and are responsible for billions of dollars in lost work, poor job performance, and direct medical costs. Approximately 18% of women and 6% of men experience at least one migraine attack per year. More than three million women and one million men have one or more severe headaches every month. Migraines often begin in adolescence, and are rare after age 60.

Two types of migraine are recognized. Eighty percent of migraine sufferers experience "migraine without aura," formerly called common migraine. In "migraine with aura," formerly called classic migraine, pain is preceded or accompanied by visual or other sensory disturbances, including hallucinations, partial obstruction of the visual field, numbness or tingling, or a feeling of heaviness. Symptoms are often most prominent on one side of the body, and may begin as early as 72 hours before the onset of pain.

Causes and symptoms


The physiological basis of migraine has proved difficult to uncover. Genetics appear to play a part for many, but not all, people with migraine. There are a multitude of potential triggers for a migraine attack, and recognizing one's own set of triggers is the key to prevention.

PHYSIOLOGY. The most widely accepted hypothesis of migraine suggests that a migraine attack is precipitated when pain-sensing nerve cells in the brain (called nociceptors) release chemicals called neuropeptides. At least one of the neurotransmitters, substance P, increases the pain sensitivity of other nearby nociceptors.

Other neuropeptides act on the smooth muscle surrounding cranial blood vessels. This smooth muscle regulates blood flow in the brain by relaxing or contracting, thus constricting the enclosed blood vessels and stimulating adjacent pain receptors. At the onset of a migraine headache, neuropeptides are thought to cause muscle relaxation, allowing vessel dilation and increased blood flow. Other neuropeptides increase the leakiness of cranial vessels, allowing fluid leak, and promote inflammation and tissue swelling. The pain of migraine is thought to result from this combination of increased pain sensitivity, tissue and vessel swelling, and inflammation. The aura seen during a migraine may be related to constriction in the blood vessels that dilate in the headache phase.

GENETICS. Susceptibility to migraine may be inherited. A child of a migraine sufferer has as much as a 50% chance of developing migraine. If both parents are affected, the chance rises to 70%. However, the gene or genes responsible have not been identified, and many cases of migraine have no obvious familial basis. It is likely that whatever genes are involved set the stage for migraine, and that full development requires environmental influences as well.

TRIGGERS. A wide variety of foods, drugs, environmental cues, and personal events are known to trigger migraines. It is not known how most triggers set off the events of migraine, nor why individual migraine sufferers are affected by particular triggers but not others.

Common food triggers include:

  • cheese
  • alcohol
  • caffeine products, and caffeine withdrawal
  • chocolate
  • intensely sweet foods
  • dairy products
  • fermented or pickled foods
  • citrus fruits
  • nuts
  • processed foods, especially those containing nitrites, sulfites, or monosodium glutamate (msg)

Environmental and event-related triggers include:

  • stress or time pressure
  • menstrual periods, menopause
  • sleep changes or disturbances, oversleeping
  • prolonged overexertion or uncomfortable posture
  • hunger or fasting
  • odors, smoke, or perfume
  • strong glare or flashing lights

Drugs which may trigger migraine include:

  • oral contraceptives
  • estrogen replacement therapy
  • nitrates
  • theophylline
  • reserpine
  • nifedipine
  • indomethicin
  • cimetidine
  • decongestant overuse
  • analgesic overuse
  • benzodiazepine withdrawal


Migraine without aura may be preceded by elevations in mood or energy level for up to 24 hours before the attack. Other pre-migraine symptoms may include fatigue, depression, and excessive yawning.

Aura most often begins with shimmering, jagged arcs of white or colored light progressing over the visual field in the course of 10-20 minutes. This may be preceded or replaced by dark areas or other visual disturbances. Numbness and tingling is common, especially of the face and hands. These sensations may spread, and may be accompanied by a sensation of weakness or heaviness in the affected limb.

The pain of migraine is often present only on one side of the head, although it may involve both, or switch sides during attacks. The pain is usually throbbing, and may range from mild to incapacitating. It is often accompanied by nausea or vomiting, painful sensitivity to light and sound, and intolerance of food or odors. Blurred vision is common.

Migraine pain tends to intensify over the first 30 minutes to several hours, and may last from several hours to a day or longer. Afterward, the affected person is usually weary, and sensitive to sudden head movements.


Migraine is diagnosed by a careful medical history. Lab tests and imaging studies such as computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have not been useful for identifying migraine. However, for some patients, those tests may be needed to rule out a brain tumor or other structural causes of migraine headache.


Once a migraine begins, the person will usually seek out a dark, quiet room to lessen painful stimuli. Several drugs may be used to reduce the pain and severity of the attack.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful for early and mild headache. NSAIDs include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and others. A recent study concluded that a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine could effectively relieve symptoms for many migraine patients. One such over-the-counter preparation is available as Exedrin Migraine.

More severe or unresponsive attacks may be treated with drugs that act on serotonin receptors in the smooth muscle surrounding cranial blood vessels. Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, constricts these vessels, relieving migraine pain. Drugs that mimic serotonin and bind to these receptors have the same effect. The oldest of them is ergotamine, a derivative of a common grain fungus. Ergotamine and dihydroergotamine are used for both acute and preventive treatment. Derivatives with fewer side effects have come onto the market in the past decade, including sumatriptan (Imitrex). Some of these drugs are available as nasal sprays, intramuscular injections, or rectal suppositories for patients in whom vomiting precludes oral administration. Other drugs used for acute attacks include meperidine and metoclopramide.

Studies are showing that rizatriptan is a promising drug for the treatment of migraines. One study showed that 10mg of rizatriptan provided relief to 90% of the patients in the study group and kept 50% of them pain-free 2 hours after taking the medication. Sumatriptan has been on the market since 1993, while rizatriptan became available in 1998.

Continued use of some anti-migraine drugs can lead to "rebound headache," marked by frequent or chronic headaches, especially in the early morning hours. Rebound headache is avoided by using anti-migraine drugs under a doctor's supervision, with the minimum dose necessary to treat symptoms. Patients with frequent migraines may need preventive therapy.

Alternative treatment

Alternative treatments are aimed at prevention of migraine. Migraine headaches are often linked with food allergies or intolerances. Identification and elimination of the offending food or foods can decrease the frequency of migraines and/or alleviate these headaches altogether. Herbal therapy with feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) may lessen the frequency of attacks. Learning to increase the flow of blood to the extremities through biofeedback training may allow a patient to prevent some of the vascular changes once a migraine begins. During a migraine, keep the lights low; put the feet in a tub of hot water and place a cold cloth on the occipital region (the back of the head). This draws the blood to the feet and decreases the pressure in the head.


Most people with migraines can bring their attacks under control through recognizing and avoiding triggers, and by use of appropriate drugs when migraine occurs. Some people with severe migraines do not respond to preventive or drug therapy. Migraines usually wane in intensity by age 60 and beyond.


The frequency of migraine may be lessened by avoiding triggers. It is useful to keep a headache journal, recording the particulars and noting possible triggers for each attack. Specific measures which may help include:

  • eating at regular times, and not skipping meals
  • reducing the use of caffeine and pain relievers
  • restricting physical exertion, especially on hot days
  • keeping regular sleep hours, but not oversleeping
  • managing time to avoid stress at work and home

Some drugs can be used for migraine prevention, including specific members of these drug classes:

  • beta blockers
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • calcium channel blockers
  • anticonvulsants
  • prozac
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors (mao)
  • serotonin antagonists

For most patients, preventive drug therapy is not an appropriate option, since it requires continued use of powerful drugs. However, for women whose migraines coincide with the menstrual period, limited preventive treatment may be effective. Since these drugs are appropriate for patients with other medical conditions, the decision to prescribe them for migraine may be influenced by expected benefit elsewhere.



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Kim A. Sharp, MLn

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