What are Migraines?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Migraine is a severe form of headache felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head. Migraines may also be accompanied by other symptoms such as a sensitivity to light or nausea.

Migraine is a common condition affecting millions worldwide and in the UK, around 15% of individuals are affected by migraine.

Some of the symptoms of this type of headache include:

  • Severe throbbing headache felt at the front or side of the head, although the area where pain is felt can change during an attack. The pain usually becomes more severe when a person tries to move.
  • Increased sensitivity to light (photophobia) or sound (phonophobia). A person suffering form migraine will usually try to rest in a quiet, dark room during an attack.
  • Nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • Aura – Some people experience an aura or warning sign before the onset of migraine. Nearly one third of all migraine sufferers have these aura and examples include vision problems such as seeing flashing lights and stiffness in the shoulder, limbs or neck.
  • Some people also develop migraine without headaches. These are termed silent headaches, where the aura or other symptoms are experienced but no headache actually manifests.

Women are more commonly affected by migraine than men, with 25% women and 8% of men affected by the condition in the UK. The higher frequency in women may be related to hormones, as women have reported that the attacks are more likely to occur around the time of their period, although this link has not yet been proven.

Worldwide, around 12% to 28% of the adult population experiences migraine at some point in their lives. Although migraines can develop at any age, they usually start during adolescence or early adulthood and almost 90% of people experience their first migraine before the age of 40 years. While some people experience attacks several times a week, others only develop a migraine occasionally, with the headaches sometimes occurring years apart. In some cases, migraines are triggered by certain factors that individuals learn to avoid such as eating a particular food or stress.

Usually, attacks are confined to one part of the head and last from 4 to 72 hours. After a migraine, some people need to stay in bed for several days while they recover. Some treatments are available that can help to prevent migraines and pain relievers can be used to lessen their impact.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 26, 2014

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