Is a migraine just a bad headache?

A migraine is a headache that can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on just one side of the head. It's often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines can last a few days to a few months. Migraines can be chronic and interrupt a person’s life. Warning symptoms known as aura may occur before or with the headache.

Migraine headaches are ongoing modest to severe headache pain that can have an effect on any part of the head. The disorder is usually inherited and affects women three times more often than men. Symptoms appear as early as puberty or early adulthood. The pain can get worse with increased physical activity and sensitivity to sound, light, and smell. Nausea and vomiting may also accompany this condition. Weather changes, hunger, stress, sleep deficiency, and various other factors also often trigger migraine headaches in people with the condition. There is no known medical cure for migraine headaches; however, there are drugs and medications available, such as analgesics, to dull the pain and to assist in controlling these headaches. Some drugs have been approved to prevent migraines, including certain antiseizure drugs and the antidepressant amitriptyline.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Administration Specialist

Headaches are one of the most common problems for women of all ages. It is thought that the majority of headaches are migraines, experienced by about 20 percent women and 7 percent men. Migraines appear to be related to the spasms or contraction of blood vessels, which temporarily decreases blood flow to the brain. During the menopause transition, fluctuating hormones may aggravate existing migraines, cause migraines to recur after a period of respite, or cause migraines for the first time. After menopause, about two-thirds of women with migraines find that their headaches disappear or improve.

Headaches can vary in intensity and frequency, even for the same person. Sometimes, headaches are mild and easily treated with over-the-counter medication; but at other times, they are more severe. Migraines that are accompanied by a stiff or painful neck may be diagnosed as tension headaches. Nasal congestion or facial discomfort with a headache may be interpreted as a sinus headache. Some experts now think that all these headaches may be migraines.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause

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Dr. Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine Specialist

A migraine is a vascular-type headache characterized by a sharp, pounding pain, usually located on one side of the head.

Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

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Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

From the bestselling authors of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the most comprehensive and practical guide available to the nutritional benefits and medicinal properties of virtually everything...

A migraine is described as an intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one area of the head. It is often accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. Migraine is three times more common in women than in men. Some individuals can predict the onset of a migraine because it is preceded by an "aura," visual disturbances that appear as flashing lights, zig-zag lines, or a temporary loss of vision. People with migraine tend to have recurring attacks triggered by lack of food or sleep, exposure to light, or hormonal irregularities (only in women). Anxiety, stress, or relaxation after stress can also act as triggers. For many years, scientists believed that migraines were linked to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head. Investigators now believe that migraine is caused by inherited abnormalities in genes that control the activities of certain cell populations in the brain.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Not all headaches, even bad ones, are migraines.  Knowing which kind of headache you have helps you and your clinician find the most effective treatment and prevention strategies.

There is confusion in the medical community about the different kinds and causes of headaches.  Some doctors and other seem to feel that almost all headaches are "migraines."  However, the International Headache Society has created the International Classification Headache Disorders (ICHD) in order to standardize terminology for this common problem.  The Society is made up of specialists and experts in the study of headaches.

Terminology is important.  When doctors, researchers (and patients) use the same language to describe headaches, there is less confusion.   The ICHD describes 2 categories of headache: 1.) “secondary” headaches which are due to some other medical problem such as infection, drug side-effects, and concussion and the much more common “primary” headaches that have no apparent cause.

Primary headaches can be divided into 4 basic types: tension type, migraine, cluster and “other.”  Tension type headache (TTH) is by far the most common among headache suffers.  In my practice, many patients have come to me thinking that they have “migraine” headaches and may even have had migraine diagnosed incorrectly by a physician.  TTH can be quite severe.  The severity of head pain does not make a migraine.

A true migraine headache usually has certain features that set it apart from the “garden variety” TTH.  While the actual causes of migraine are not well understood, how migraines act is fairly consistent and usually makes the diagnosis without special tests, lab studies or imaging.

The typical migraine in adults happens 3 times as often in women.  The start of a migraine includes a “prodrome” in about 60% of patients.  A variety of prodrome symptoms occur from hours to days before the headache.  These include mood changes, visual disturbance, altered sensation and a sense of heaviness or weakness.

The headache itself can be moderate to severe and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, pale and clammy skin, extreme sensitivity to light and sound.  Most migraine sufferers (“migraineurs”) find relief only in a darkened, quite room, a period of rest and are often left feeling tired and weak.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

This one-sided throbbing pain causes sensitivity to light and sound and may cause nausea. Migraines run in families and women are three times more likely to have them than men. Experts believe that migraines may be caused by nerve signals that the brain misinterprets as pain.

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People who suffer from migraine headaches usually seek medical attention; about 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men suffer from migraines. Migraine pain is characterized as a moderate-to-severe, pulsating, throbbing pain often focused on one side of the head. This pain is intensified by simple physical activity. Migraine pain can be managed by a combination of nonprescription and prescription medications and self-care approaches and by avoiding triggers that set off migraine attacks.

Migraine is the French derivation of the Greek word hemikrania, meaning "half a head," referring to the typical pattern of migraine distress—pain only on one side of the head, most often at the temple. The affected side can vary from one attack to the next or during a single episode.

Migraine pain ranges from moderate to severe. Unlike tension headache, migraine headaches can keep you from functioning or sleeping, and they can even rouse you from sound slumber. Most people describe the pain as pulsating or throbbing. It can also be sharp, almost as if a dagger is piercing your temple or eye.

Nausea and vomiting are common during a migraine headache. Likewise, tense head, neck, and shoulder muscles can accompany a migraine headache. In most cases, this is thought to be an involuntary response to the pain, rather than its cause (although tight muscles can trigger a migraine headache). Bright lights and loud noises worsen the pain and may prompt someone with a migraine headache to seek out quiet, dimly lit places. Similarly, smell may aggravate nausea and cause vomiting.

Migraine is a common neurological condition occurring in at least 15 to 20 percent of the population and in up to 50 percent of women.

Classic migraine starts with visual symptoms (often zigzag lines, colored lights or flashes of light expanding to one side of your vision over 10 to 30 minutes), followed by a single-sided pounding, severe headache. The headache may be associated with nausea, vomiting and light sensitivity. Sometimes visual symptoms and even neurologic dysfunction may occur without the headache. These are called “migraine variant.”

Common migraine may cause only a headache felt on both sides of the head. This form of migraine may be responsible for the headaches that many people may have attributed to tension, stress or sinus pain.

A migraine headache is a very severe headache with specific symptoms. In this video, Adel Olshansky, MD, a neurologist at West Hills Hospital, describes other symptoms that accompany a typical migraine, including nausea and sensitivity to light.

More than 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraine, with women being affected three times more often than men. This vascular headache is most commonly experienced between the ages of 15 and 55, and 70% to 80% of sufferers have a family history of migraine. Less than half of all migraine sufferers have received a diagnosis of migraine from their healthcare provider. A migraine is often misdiagnosed as sinus headache or tension-type headache. Many factors can trigger migraine attacks, such as alteration of sleep-wake cycle; missing or delaying a meal; medications that cause a swelling of the blood vessels; daily or near daily use of medications designed for relieving headache attacks; bright lights, sunlight, fluorescent lights, TV and movie viewing; certain foods; and excessive noise. Stress and/or underlying depression are important trigger factors that can be diagnosed and treated adequately.

Migraine characteristics can include:

  • Pain typically on one side of the head
  • Pain has a pulsating or throbbing quality
  • Moderate to intense pain affecting daily activities
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Attacks last four to 72 hours, sometimes longer
  • Visual disturbances or aura
  • Exertion such as climbing stairs makes headache worse
Dr. Dawn Marcus

A practical definition, and one that many doctors use, is that migraine is a very common, controllable group of symptoms, in addition to headache, that is often inherited and clearly has a biological basis.

Let's break down the individual components of this definition of migraine. First, migraine is very common, affecting 12 percent of all adults -- 6 percent of men and 18 percent of women. That's one in every six women! These figures are remarkably consistent in countries around the world.

Next, migraine is very controllable, although not curable. With a proper diagnosis and an effective headache treatment plan, the vast majority of migraine sufferers can lead normal, productive lives. An effective treatment strategy that involves lifestyle changes, non-drug treatments, and medications can dramatically reduce lost time from work and family activities, and significantly improve quality of life.

The Woman's Migraine Toolkit: Managing Your Headaches from Puberty to Menopause (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

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The Woman's Migraine Toolkit: Managing Your Headaches from Puberty to Menopause (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

Migraines are a common, controllable type of headache that affects one in every six women, more than 20 million in the United States alone. The Woman’s Migraine Toolkit helps readers take charge of...

Migraines are a medical condition. Most people who suffer from migraines get headaches that can be quite severe. A migraine headache is usually an intense, throbbing pain on one, or sometimes, both sides of the head. Most people with migraine headache feel the pain in the temples or behind one eye or ear, although any part of the head can be involved. Besides pain, migraine also can cause nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also may see spots or flashing lights or have a temporary loss of vision.

Migraine can occur any time of the day, though it often starts in the morning. The pain can last a few hours or up to one or two days. Some people get migraines once or twice a week. Most of the time, migraines are not a threat to your overall health. But migraine attacks can interfere with your day-to-day life.

We don't know what causes migraine, but some things are more common in people who have them:

Most often, migraine affects people between the ages of 15 and 55. Most people have a family history of migraine or of disabling headache. They are more common in women. Migraine often becomes less severe and less frequent with age.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Cynthia T. Tucker
Nursing Specialist

The two major types of migraine are, migraine with aura and migraine without aura.

Migraine with aura, previously called classic migraine, includes visual disturbances and other neurological symptoms that appear about 10 to 60 minutes before the actual headache and usually last no more than an hour. Individuals may temporarily lose part or all of their vision. The aura may occur without headache, which can strike at any time. Other classic symptoms include trouble speaking, an abnormal sensation, numbness, or muscle weakness on one side of the body, a tingling sensation in the hands or face, and confusion. Nausea, loss of appetite, and increased sensitivity to light, sound, or noise may precede the headache. Migraine without aura, or common migraine, is the more frequent form of migraine. The symptoms of migraine without aura include headache that occurs without warning and is usually felt on one side of the head, along with nausea, confusion, blurred vision, mood changes, fatigue, and increased sensitivity to light, sound, or noise.

This answer is based on source information from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Migraines cause an intense pain in one or more areas of the brain. The headache may be accompanied by other symptoms, including constipation, diarrhea, food cravings, depression, hyperactivity, irritability, neck stiffness, hallucinations, vision loss, or speech and language problems.

Dr. Mosaraf Ali, MD
Integrative Medicine Specialist

Your head is killing you, your stomach hurts and you'd turn off the light if only you could bear to move. What is this strange disorder called a migraine? In this video, integrative medicine expert and Dr. Oz Show guest Mosaraf Ali explains.

Migraines are severe headaches that typically are unilateral (affecting only one side of the head), pulsating or throbbing in nature, and sometimes associated with nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sensitivity to sound.

Dr. Geoffrey P. Colby, MD

Migraine headaches are typically pounding, throbbing headaches. They often occur on both sides of the head but sometimes on one side of the head, and those headaches are typically called sick headaches. Migraine headaches are associated with nausea and vomiting, and they're often preceded by an aura. An aura is an episode, 10 or 15 minutes before the headache hits, when you have some fuzziness in your vision, a blind spot or zigzag lines. In rare cases, people have difficulty talking for a period of time.

The aura is then followed by a headache that can last up to six hours or overnight. Very often, people have to go to a dark room. They sleep for a while, and then the headache resolves. Migraine headaches often run in families, so if your mother, a sister or a brother had migraine headaches, then that is probably the diagnosis.

Dr. Steven A. Meyers, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

No, migraine is not just a bad headache. Migraine is a condition affecting approximately 12% of the US population. The cause is not clearly understood but the disease tends to run in families suggesting a genetic cause. The hallmark of migraine is severe headache frequently accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to sound and light. Approximately 10-15% of migraine sufferers experience neurologic symptoms before or during the attack called auras. Auras are most commonly visual, flashing lights, geometric shapes, or loss of vision. Auras can also consist of tingling, dizziness, difficulty speaking, and rarely weakness of one side of the body.

Not all migraine sufferers experience headache. Some people only experience the neurologic symptoms with little if any head pain. This is particularly common in older individuals.

The short answer is no. A common headache results from a narrowing of the cranial blood vessels, which is called vasoconstriction. With migraines, those blood vessel expand, which is known as vasodilation. During a migraine, tissue surrounding the brain is swollen, which causes intense pain.

An estimated 30 million Americans experience intense migraine headaches. These migraines can last for days. They can be painful to the point of keeping the person from being able to function.

Migraines often are described as a throbbing pain that begins on one side of the head and then spreads out. This kind of headache can also be accompanied by an increased sensitivity to light and can worsen with physical exertion. Those suffering migraines often lie down in the dark in an effort to reduce their pain.

Migraines also are often accompanied by gastrointestinal disturbances, which can include abdominal pains.

Migraines also are often preceded by warning signs, including depression, euphoria, depression or cravings for certain kinds of food.

About one-fifth of the people who suffer migraines experience an aura before the onset of their migraine. This aura can manifest as a disturbance to any of the five senses.

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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.