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Understanding Migraine Symptoms

Learn more about the types of migraines and their symptoms.

It can be difficult for anyone who has never had a migraine to understand what it is like, but for those who do, a migraine is much worse than just a bad headache.

What Is a Migraine?

Migraine is a complex disorder that can be debilitating for some sufferers who experience severe pain and associated symptoms. A migraine attack can last from several hours to several days. The pain is often described as throbbing, pounding, or pulsating. It is usually confined to one side of the head, although it can shift from one side to the other or affect the whole head. The other symptoms depend on what type of migraine the person is experiencing. The frequency of migraine attacks can vary from two or three a year to two or more a week. When they occur 15 or more days in a month, they are termed chronic migraines.

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a migraine from a severe tension headache. The following chart highlights some differences between the two headache types.

Is It a Migraine or a Tension Headache?

Migraine Tension Headache
Moderate to severe throbbing or pulsating pain

Mild to moderate steady pain

Pain is usually on just one side of the head; may be concentrated around the eye, temple, or behind the ear Pain is on the front, sides, and back of the head, possibly spreading to the neck
Pain is aggravated by movement General feeling of tightness or stiffness (may feel like a tight band around the head)
Nausea/vomiting, and/or sensitivity to light or sound  

Types of Migraines

There are two main types of migraines—migraine with aura and migraine without aura. In about 15% to 20% of migraine sufferers, the headache is preceded by an aura, which is a temporary disturbance in vision, speech, sensation, balance, or lack of coordination that serves as a warning of what is to come. The aura can last for up to an hour before the migraine begins and sometimes continues after the migraine starts. Migraine without aura starts suddenly without any warning signs.

Some migraine sufferers may also experience what is called a prodrome, a subtle warning that occurs a day or two before the headache begins. A prodrome is a group of changes that may include differences in mood (either sadness or joy), food cravings, increased urination, constipation, neck stiffness, and frequent yawning.

Migraine Symptoms

In addition to pain, the most common migraine symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light, noise, and/or odours
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating or chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting, or upset stomach

For more helpful migraine information see:Causes and Treatment of Migraines

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