What is migraine?

M igraine is usually a severe headache felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head. Some people also have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound. Migraine is a common health condition, affecting around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. They usually begin in early adulthood.

What are the main types of Migraine?

  • migraine with aura – where there are warning signs before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
  • migraine without aura – where the migraine occurs without warning signs
  • migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop

What causes migraines?

The exact cause of migraines is unknown, although they are thought to be the result of temporary changes in the chemicals and blood vessels in the brain. Around half of all people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that genes may play a role. Some people find migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers, which can include starting their period, stress, tiredness and certain foods or drinks.

How migraines are treated?

There is no cure for migraines, but there are a number of treatments available to help reduce the symptoms.

These include:

  • painkillers – including over the counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen
  • anti migraine medications – medications that can help reverse the changes in the brain that may cause migraines
  • anti-emetics – medications often used to reduce nausea and vomiting

What are the the symptoms of Migraine?

The main symptom of a migraine is usually an intense headache that occurs at the front or on one side of the head. The pain is usually a severe throbbing sensation that gets worse when you move and prevents you from carrying out normal activities. In some cases, the pain can occur on both sides of your head and may affect your face or neck.

Additional symptoms that often accompany migraine headaches are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light and sound, which is why many people with a migraine want to rest in a quiet, dark room

Some people also occasionally experience other symptoms including sweating, poor concentration, feeling very hot or very cold, abdominal (tummy) pain and diarrhoea. Not everyone experiences these additional symptoms when they have a migraine and some people may experience them without having a headache.

The symptoms of a migraine usually last between four hours and three days, although you may feel very tired for up to a week afterwards.

What is migrainous aura?

About one in three people with migraines have temporary warning symptoms, known as aura, before a migraine. These include:

  • visual problems, such as seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns or blind spots
  • numbness or a tingling sensation like pins and needles, which usually starts in one hand and moves up your arm before affecting your face, lips and tongue
  • feeling dizzy or off balance
  • difficulty speaking
  • loss of consciousness, although this is rare

Aura symptoms typically develop over the course of about five minutes and last for up to an hour. Some people may experience aura followed by only a mild headache or no headache at all

What are the complications of Migraine?

  • Stroke – Migraine increases the risk of stroke – the ischemic variety and can very rarely cause hemorrhagic strokes.
  • Migraine is associated with a very small increased risk of mental health problems, including:
    • depression
    • bipolar disorder
    • anxiety disorder
    • panic disorder

How to prevent migraines?

One of the best ways of preventing migraines is recognising the things that trigger an attack and trying to avoid them.

You may find you tend to have a migraine after eating certain foods or when you are stressed and by avoiding this trigger, you can prevent a migraine. Read more about possible migraine triggers.

Keeping a migraine diary can help you identify possible triggers and monitor how well any medication you are taking is working.

In your migraine diary, try to record:

  • the date of the attack
  • the time of day the attack began
  • any warning signs
  • your symptoms (including the presence or absence of aura)
  • what medication you took
  • when the attack ended

What are migraine triggers?

Different triggers have been identified like hormonal, emotional, physical, dietary, environmental and medicinal factors.

Hormonal changes

Some women experience migraines around the time of their period known as menstrual-related migraines and they usually occur between two days before the start of your period to three days after. Many women find their migraines improve after the menopause, although the menopause can trigger migraines or make them worse in some women.

Emotional triggers:

  • stress, anxiety, tension, shock, depression, excitement

Physical triggers:

  • tiredness
  • poor quality sleep
  • jet lag

Dietary triggers:

  • missed, delayed or irregular meals
  • dehydration
  • alcohol
  • some food additive eg tyramine
  • caffeine products, such as tea and coffee
  • specific foods such as chocolate, citrus fruit and cheese

Environmental triggers:

  • bright lights
  • flickering screens, such as a television or computer screen
  • smoking (or smoky rooms)
  • loud noises
  • changes in climate, such as changes in humidity or very cold temperatures
  • strong smells


  • some types of sleeping tablets
  • the combined contraceptive pill
  • hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is sometimes used to relieve
  • symptoms associated with the menopause