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Symptoms of Migraine

Updated on February 02, 2020

Article written by
Kelly Crumrin

Intense head pain is the most common symptom of migraine, but migraine causes many other symptoms that can be just as debilitating. Symptoms of migraine can differ between individuals and types of migraine.

Pain

Migraine commonly causes head pain that worsens with physical activity. Migraine pain is often intense enough to be disabling and can prevent people from going to work, attending school, or participating in other routine activities. Migraine pain is often described as throbbing, pounding, or pulsating. Most migraine attacks last between four and 72 hours, although some people with migraine progress to chronic migraine that may be daily or continual. In most people, migraine pain occurs on one side of the head.

Some people experience neck pain or abdominal pain during migraine attacks.

Aura

About 20 percent of people with migraine experience an aura before head pain starts. The most common types of migraines are defined by whether or not they are preceded by an aura. Aura is one of four possible phases of a migraine.

Auras involve changes in perception such as visual disturbances (flashing lights, zig-zag lines, or blind spots), hearing music or noise with no source, or tingling and numbness in one arm or leg or on one side. In some people, aura manifests as a strange smell, a sudden change in personality, or a cognitive disruption such as difficulty speaking. Aura usually lasts between five minutes and one hour.

Auras do not always precede a migraine attack.

It is rare but possible to experience an aura that is not followed by a migraine attack.

Visual Symptoms

Apart from visual auras, migraine can cause blurred vision, temporary blindness, and photosensitivity. Also known as photophobia, photosensitivity is extreme sensitivity to light. Photosensitivity may occur with natural or artificial light. Light can trigger migraine symptoms in many people. Photosensitivity is such a common symptom in those with migraine that it is considered part of the criteria for doctors to diagnose migraine.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Migraine commonly causes nausea and vomiting. In fact, nausea and vomiting with headache is considered part of the diagnostic criteria for migraine. Constipation and food cravings may occur one or two days before migraine as part of the prodrome stage, or warning signs of an impending migraine.

Other Symptoms

Depression and anxiety are common in people with migraine, as in all chronic conditions.

Migraine can also cause fatigue, weakness, dizziness, mood changes, and cognitive symptoms such as confusion and difficulty speaking. More rarely, migraine can cause syncope (fainting), uncontrollable jerking movements, or weakness and numbness on one side of the body.

Migraine Triggers

In some people, migraine has clear triggers. Migraine may be triggered by a variety of experiences and circumstances, including:

  • Lights
  • Sounds
  • Smells
  • Stressful situations
  • Changes in the weather
  • Hormone fluctuations in women
  • Certain foods (especially aged cheese, processed foods, or very salty foods)
  • Skipping meals
  • Aspartame (an artificial sweetener)
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG, a flavor enhancing chemical)
  • Alcohol (especially wine)
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Changes in sleeping – too little sleep, too much sleep, or jet lag
  • Intense physical activity
  • Certain medications, including oral contraceptives (the pill)

Keeping a migraine diary can help identify what triggers your migraines. Avoiding migraine triggers – when possible – can help some people with migraine prevent attacks.

Does Migraine Go Away?

In many people, migraine can be effectively treated with preventative medication. In some women whose migraines began in adolescence and follow a pattern related to the menstrual cycle, migraines become less common and often stop altogether after menopause. Some people experience migraine throughout their lives.

Read about treatments for migraine.

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