Migraine Headaches

What is a migraine headache?

This often severe, throbbing type of headache is different from other types of headaches. Symptoms other than pain can occur with a migraine headache. Nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness, sensitivity to light (photophobia), and other visual changes are common. A migraine headache may last from 4 to 72 hours.

Migraines are also unique in that they have distinct phases. But not all people have each phase. The phases of a migraine headache may include:

  • Premonition phase. A change in mood or behavior may occur hours or days before the headache.
  • Aura phase. About one-third of people who have migraine headaches describe having an unusual “feeling” or aura before the headache. The aura phase includes visual, sensory, or motor symptoms that occur just before the headache. Examples are hallucinations, numbness, changes in speech, visual changes, and muscle weakness. Migraine sufferers may or may not have an aura before the start of the headache.


  • Headache phase. This is the period during the actual headache. Throbbing pain occurs on one or both sides of the head. Sensitivity to light and motion is common. So, too, are depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
  • Headache resolution phase. Pain lessens during this phase. But it may be replaced with fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating. Some people feel refreshed after an attack, while others do not.

Headaches are classified as with or without aura.

What causes migraine headaches?

Experts are not certain what causes a migraine headache. Many experts think an imbalance in brain chemicals, such as serotonin, and changes in nerve pathways are involved. Migraines may also run in families suggesting a genetic link.

What are the symptoms of migraine headaches?

These are the most common symptoms of migraine headaches:

  • Throbbing, severe headache pain with a specific location either on one side or both
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Visual changes, such as a flashing light or even lack of sight, for a short period of time
  • A change in mood or behavior hours or days before the headache
  • Depression, fatigue, or anxiety
  • Fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating as the headache goes away

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are migraine headaches diagnosed?

Migraine headaches are diagnosed based on your symptoms and a physical exam.

Tracking and sharing information about your headache with your healthcare provider helps with the diagnosis. Write down the following:

  • Time of day when your headaches occur
  • Specific location of your headaches
  • How your headaches feel
  • How long your headaches last
  • Any changes in behavior or personality
  • Effect of changes in position or activities on the headache
  • Effect of headaches on sleep patterns
  • Level of stress in your life
  • Details about any head trauma, either recently or in the past

If you have unusual symptoms or the findings from your exam aren’t normal, your healthcare provider may want you to have other tests or procedures. These can rule out underlying diseases or health problems. These tests include:

  • Blood tests. Various blood chemistry and other lab tests may be used to check for underlying health problems.
  • Sinus X-rays. This X-ray checks for congestion or other problems linked to the headaches.
  • MRI. This test uses a combination of large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures.
  • CT scan. This test uses X-rays and computer technology to make images of the body or head. CT scans show more detail than standard X-rays.
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). A special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal, which is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to check if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.