What Is a Migraine Headache? | Whittier, CA | PIH Health

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Published on June 20, 2022

What Is a Migraine Headache?

Photo of a woman holding her head with a pained look on her faceThis often severe, throbbing type of headache is different from other types of headaches. “Migraine symptoms other than pain can occur with this type of headache,” says Teresa Sokol PA-C, certified physician assistant at PIH Health. “Nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness, sensitivity to light, and other visual changes are common and 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,” says Sokol. “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.
  • 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.

What are the symptoms of migraine headaches?

Most common symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • 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 so always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are migraine headaches diagnosed?

“Migraine headaches are diagnosed based on a patient’s symptoms and a physical exam,” says Sokol. “Tracking and sharing information about the symptoms with a 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 are not 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.

How are migraine headaches treated?

“Treatment for migraine depends on the symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on the severity of the condition,” says Sokol. Certain medicines can help treat or prevent migraine headaches:

  • Abortive medicines. These medicines are prescribed by your healthcare provider. They act on specific receptors in both the brain and the blood vessels in the head, stopping a headache once it has started.
  • Rescue medicines. These are medicines purchased over-the-counter, such as pain relievers, to lessen or stop the headache.
  • Preventive (prophylactic) medicines. These medicines are prescribed by your healthcare provider. They are taken regularly to stop the start of severe migraine headaches.

Can migraine headaches be prevented?

The goal of treatment is to prevent migraines from occurring. You can help do that by:

  • Staying away from known triggers, such as certain foods and beverages like caffeine, lack of sleep, and fasting
  • Changing eating habits
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Sticking to a regular sleep schedule
  • Resting in a quiet, dark place
  • Taking medicines, as advised by your healthcare provider
  • Managing stress
  • Getting therapeutic massage
  • Taking prescribed medicine as directed

According to Sokol, some headaches may require care right away, including going to the hospital for observation, and diagnostic testing. Go to the nearest emergency department right away if you have a migraine headache with:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Convulsion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Muscular weakness
  • Double vision
  • Change in level of consciousness

To find a doctor go to PIHHealth.org/Doctors.

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The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.