Migraine FAQs

What is migraine?

While many people use the word “migraine” to refer to a bad headache, migraine is actually a medical condition. The American Migraine Foundation defines migraine as a “ disabling neurological disease with different symptoms and different treatment approaches compared to other headache disorders.” Migraine is typically characterized by intense, debilitating headaches, but can cause other symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine can severely impact a person’s daily life and have a negative effect on many important aspects of life, including marital relationships, parenting, career, and overall health.

What is the main cause of migraine?

While the exact causes of migraine aren’t really clear, migraine occurs in people who have highly sensitive or hyperactive nervous symptoms. This hyperactivity causes electrical activity to spread throughout the brain, causing disturbances in various functions such as vision, sensation, and balance. These disturbances lead to painful inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain, which triggers migraine symptoms such as throbbing headache, nausea, and sensitivity.

At least 39 million Americans live with migraine, according to the American Migraine Foundation. But the actual number is likely much higher, as many people never receive a proper diagnosis or treatment.

How do you know if you have migraine?

Migraine symptoms vary from person to person, but you may have migraine if:
  • You experience throbbing headaches that may be worse on one side of your head.
  • You have severe headache pain that impairs your ability to function in your daily life.
  • Your headache pain becomes worse with any physical activity.
  • You have a severe headache accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
  • Your headache pain lasts anywhere from four hours to several days.

It’s important to know if you have migraine, because the treatment for migraine will differ from the treatment for other kinds of headaches.

What happens during a migraine attack?

A migraine attack consists of four distinct phases: prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome. However, not everyone experiences all four phases. Understanding the phases of a migraine attack can help you recognize the symptoms before an actual headache occurs, which may enable you to ward off a full-fledged attack.

How do you diagnose migraine?

There is no blood test or other medical test that can diagnose migraine. To determine if your symptoms are caused by migraine, you will need to talk to a doctor to provide a history of your headaches and explain your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can then determine if you are experiencing migraine or another type of headache, such as tension headaches.

How do you stop a migraine attack?

There is no cure for migraine, but migraine attacks can be treated and often prevented. Headache pain can be treated in the moment with medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or prescription medications. Using a cold compress or lying in a dark room may also help relieve pain.

Dehydration can trigger a migraine for many people, so make sure you are well hydrated. Meditation and breathing exercises that help calm the nervous system may also help.

How long do migraine attacks last?

While the duration of a migraine attack varies from person to person, an attack can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. The headache phase itself – what we usually think of as the entire migraine attack – may last from 4 to 72 hours. The final migraine phase, the postdrome phase may last another 24 hours after the headache phase ends.

If your headache lasts longer than 72 hours, or is accompanied by other signs of a neurological problem, consider calling your doctor or going to the emergency room.

What foods should you avoid if you have migraine?

Certain foods can trigger migraine attacks for many people. Common culprits include caffeine and alcohol, especially red wine. However, other people find that a cup of coffee can stop their symptoms, and many migraine medications contain caffeine. Pay attention to how you feel after consuming caffeine – you may want to keep a food journal – and notice whether it triggers an attack or makes you feel better.

Other foods to watch out for include chocolate, cheese, dairy, cured meats, artificial sweeteners, and foods that contain histamine or MSG. Histamine is a chemical created in the body that is released as part of the immune system’s response to an injury or allergen, and is thought to be a migraine trigger for many people. Foods that are rich in histamine or can trigger histamine release in the body include dried fruits, avocados, eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, citrus fruits, pickles, and fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt.