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What are the symptoms of migraine headaches?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Symptoms of migraine headaches usually begin at puberty or early adulthood with throbbing, aching pain in the head. The pain can be moderate, but is often severe, and can get worse with physical activity. Migraine headaches are also often associated with vomiting, sensitivity to light, smell, and sound. People with this disorder commonly have signs to alert them that an attack is oncoming. These signs consist of nausea, loss of appetite or food cravings, and changes in one's mood. In approximately 25 percent of people with this disorder, the migraine occurs shortly after they experience an aura; a short-term interruption in one's balance, sight, speaking ability, coordination, or sensation.

The most common sign of migraine is headache lasting for hours. Symptoms generally include:

  • Pounding pain on one side of your head (or steady pain on both sides of your head);
  • Sensitivity to light and sound;
  • Nausea, vomiting;
  • Visual symptoms (usually in both eyes but often to one side) with some of the following characteristics: a spot of blurring that expands to one side over 10 to 30 minutes; an expanding border often described as zigzag lines, “shimmering” or resembling “heat waves” or “sparklers”; vision loss in one eye only, involving the entire field or only the upper or lower section.

Rare symptoms include double vision, change in lid position (lid droop) or change in pupil size (both smaller and larger).

In very rare cases, the visual problems associated with migraine may not entirely resolve. This may be due to a stroke associated with migraine.

Migraine headaches are defined by the presence of two or more of these four symptoms:

  • moderate-to-severe headache pain
  • pulsating or throbbing pain
  • pain on one side of the head
  • routine physical activity, such as walking up stairs, intensifies pain

The migraine diagnosis also requires one or both of these symptoms:

  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • unusual sensitivity to light and noise

If you have two symptoms from the first category and at least one symptom from the second category, you may be suffering from a migraine headache.

In addition to throbbing pain on one side or both sides of the skull, most people experience loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting and tiredness.

Many people also have problems hearing or speaking, problems spelling, difficulty understanding simple written words and other cognitive problems.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.