What is a Migraine?
Learn about what a migraine is and how to deal with them
Migraine is a complex and disabling affliction that is estimated to affect up to 148 million people worldwide.
Although it’s a type of headache disorder, symptoms are often beyond just pain and can have significant impact on quality of life. Examples include: sensitivity to light, sound and smells, numbness, speech and language impairment, difficulty concentrating, vision problems, nausea and severe, throbbing pain in the head – just to name a few. A headache may just be one of the symptoms, and some people may not even get a headache during the attack.
What causes migraines?
The exact cause of migraines is still not well understood, but the problem is considered neurological (related to the nervous system), and are thought to be caused by a perfect storm of environmental and genetic factors.
Though the exact science of migraines is still not well understood, experts believe they are related to genetic mutations and changes in brain chemistry that send pain signals to the brainstem.
One thing we do know? Certain triggers, such as some foods, stress, lack of sleep, hormonal changes and even weather can bring on an attack. Migraine triggers vary by individual, so make sure to keep an eye out for what causes your migraines to surface.
Triggers include stress, weather, hormones and even some foods
No two migraines are the same.
Think of it as a spectrum. Some people experience milder forms of the affliction, while for others, their attacks can be utterly debilitating. The frequency and length of attacks can vary. And then there are different types of migraine, each involving a different spectrum of symptoms.
Not only that, symptoms can vary from person to person. You could even experience different symptoms during different attacks.
There is no typical migraine – everyone’s experience is different. And so are their strategies for coping with migraine attacks.
There is no typical migraine – everyone’s experience is different
The toll of migraines
Migraines can strike out of the blue. Anyone who’s ever suffered an attack knows that not only can they be frightening, but the pain can be so severe that you may not be able to carry out even the simplest of daily tasks. And that can put a strain on your family, work and social lives.
That’s a heavy burden. But the good news is, it doesn’t always have to be. There are actions you can take to help minimize and manage – and even stay ahead of – attacks. The more you know about migraines, the more you can take control over them, and your life.
Who gets migraines?
The short answer – anyone can get them. However, some people are more likely to be affected:
- Women are 3 times more likely to get migraines than men
- 70% to 80% of sufferers have a family history of migraines
- About 2% of children under the age of 7 and about 10% of children up to the age of 15
- People who have epilepsy, depression, asthma, anxiety, stroke and other neurological disorders are more prone to migraines
Migraine vs. Headache
The difference between a headache and a migraine? A headache can be considered a disturbance, while a migraine can be much more debilitating.
Migraines differ from headaches in their duration, severity of pain, and other physical symptoms. While a headache can make you feel out of sorts for a few hours, a migraine can take you right out for days. Treating your migraine symptoms early may help to reduce the severity of the attack.
- Moderate-to-severe pain that is throbbing or pulsating
- Pain, usually on one side of your head, that may be concentrated around the eye, temple or behind the ear
- Pain that is aggravated by movement
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Can last up to days
- Mild-to-moderate steady pain
- Pain on front, sides and back of head, possibly spreading to the neck
- General feeling of tightness or stiffness, perhaps like a very tight band around the head
- Most last for 20 minutes to two hours
If you live with migraines, simply understanding what is happening is the first step to finding some relief. By learning your unique triggers, you can learn to stem off an attack. When one does hit, try some of these treatments to find a solution for you.
For more information about migraines, go to the migraine section on our website.
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- Harvard Health Publishing. “Headache: When to Worry, What to Do.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, June 2009, www.health.harvard.edu/pain/headache-when-to-worry-what-to-do.
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- Hard Facts on Tough Migraines. Hard Facts on Tough Migraines, Advil®. https://www.advil.ca/sites/default/files/adv-12002_migraine_tearsheet_en_04-30-12_0_1.pdf
- “More than ‘Just a Headache.’” The Migraine Trust, www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/more-than-just-a-headache/.
- “Symptoms and Stages.” The Migraine Trust, www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/symptoms-and-stages/.
- “What Is Migraine?” The Ontario Migraine Clinic. What Is a Migraine., www.migraineclinic.ca/migraines.html.
- “The Timeline of a Migraine Attack.” American Migraine Foundation, American Migraine Foundation, www.americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/timeline-migraine-attack/.
- “Understanding the Economic Burden of Migraine: Dr. Richard Lipton.” American Migraine Foundation, American Migraine Foundation, www.americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/understanding-migraineunderstanding-the-economic-burden-of-migraine-qa-with-dr-richard-lipton/.
- “Facts About Migraine.” American Migraine Foundation, American Migraine Foundation, americanmigrainefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Facts-About-Migraine-AMF.pdf.
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