What is a migraine?

A migraine is a throbbing headache usually felt on one side of the head that can be accompanied by sickness and vision changes. Symptoms can last for a few hours or days – afterwards you might feel very tired for several days.

If you suffer from migraines you might have them very regularly, or only occasionally. For people with severe symptoms, prescription medication may be appropriate, however most people can manage their migraine symptoms at home.

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

The key characteristic of a migraine is intense, throbbing pain felt on one side of the head that gets worse when you move around. Sometimes the pain can be felt on both sides and in the neck as well.

Another recognisable symptom is aura, which commonly causes visual problems, and begins shortly before the migraine pain sets in. Around one third of people who suffer from migraines experience aura – the majority simply experience the headache and other associated symptoms.

Other migraine symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and loud noises
  • Sweating
  • Feeling very hot or cold
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea

The symptoms of a migraine aura include:

  • Blurred vision and blind spots
  • Seeing flashing lights or patterns
  • Pins and needles in the hand, arm and face
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble speaking
  • Fainting – this is uncommon

Occasionally it’s possible to experience aura symptoms without the accompanying migraine headache – this is sometimes referred to as a silent migraine.

What’s the difference between a migraine and a headache?

A migraine is a type of headache. Others include cluster headaches (which cause sudden and agonising attacks of pain, usually around one eye) and tension headaches (a standard headache that affects both sides of the head).

Migraines tend to have associated symptoms such as feeling sick and being very sensitive to light and sound. These are often not present with a tension type headache.

Migraines also differ from tension headaches as they tend to be debilitating – in other words, they prevent you from getting on with your normal daily routine. Many people need to be in bed while they are waiting for symptoms to subside, which can sometimes take several days.

What causes migraines?

Migraine isn’t fully understood as a condition. It’s thought that abnormal brain activity temporarily affects nerve signals and the blood vessels in the brain, leading to pain and aura symptoms.

What we do know is that certain things that trigger a migraine in someone who has the condition. Migraine triggers include:

  • Hormone changes
  • Stress, anxiety and depression
  • Tiredness
  • Bad posture
  • Tension in the neck and shoulders
  • Low blood sugar
  • Vigorous exercise
  • Dehydration
  • Too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Certain foods such as chocolate and citrus fruit
  • Foods containing tyramine such as smoked salmon, and cheddar
  • Bright lights and flickering lights/screens
  • Smoking
  • Loud noises
  • Climate changes
  • Certain types of medication such as the combined contraceptive pill

If you’ve only recently started to suffer from migraines, try keeping track of your sleep schedule, diet, exercise regime, working habits, and – if you’re a woman – menstrual cycle. This should help you work out, and therefore avoid, your migraine triggers.

How are migraines diagnosed and treated?

It’s not always easy to diagnose migraines, but if you’ve been experiencing recurring headaches that are bad enough to keep you away from work and social occasions you should see a doctor.

You’ll be asked about the nature of your symptoms, and probably receive a physical examination. Your doctor might ask you to keep a migraine diary to help with diagnosis, and may refer you to a specialist if they aren’t sure of your condition, or if your migraines are very severe.

For many people, prescription treatment won’t be necessary. During a migraine you may be able to manage your symptoms by lying down in a dark room and taking over-the-counter painkillers.

If over-the-counter painkillers don’t work, if your pain is very severe, or if you experience migraines very regularly you might require prescription treatment such as:

  • Prescription painkillers
  • Triptans (which are thought to reverse the effects of a migraine upon the brain)
  • Anti-sickness medication (to prevent nausea and vomiting)
  • Prevention medication may be prescribed by your GP if you get frequent or very severe migraines

One other treatment option to consider is acupuncture, which can be given in courses lasting several weeks.

You can find out more about treatment options for migraines by making an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP