Migraine History

Migraine is one the oldest ailments known to mankind. Some of the earliest cases of painful headaches were recorded by the ancient Egyptians and date back as far as 1200 B.C. Much later, in around 400 B.C., Hippocrates referred to the visual disturbances that can precede a migraine such as flashing lights or blurred vision, which we call aura. He also described the relief felt by sufferers after vomiting.

The credit for migraine discovery, however, was given to Aretaeus of Cappadocia who described in the second century the one sided or unilateral headaches that are typical of migraines as well as the associated vomiting and the windows of time between migraines that are symptom free. 

The word migraine was derived from the Latin word “hemicrania” meaning “half” (hemi) “skull” (crania). This term was first used by Galenus of Pergamon to describe the pain felt across one side of the head during a migraine. He also suggested that the pain originated in the menenges and vasculature of the head. In addition, he pointed towards a connection between the stomach and the brain due to the vomiting that seemed to be related to migraines.

A popular and celebrated Islamic philospher Avicenna, described migraine in his textbook on medicine “El Qanoon fel teb,” in which he refers to how eating, drinking, sounds and light all worsened the pain felt during a migraine. He described how these patients tended to rest alone in a dark room until the attack passed. It was Abu Bakr Mohamed Ibn Zakariya Râzi who pointed to an association between migraine and hormones when he referred to how such headaches would occur during menopause, after childbirth or during dysmenorrhea.

Andalusian-born physician Abulcasis, who was also called Abu El Qasim, suggested that the characteristic one sided headache could be treated by applying hot irons to the head or by applying garlic to the site via an incision in the temple. In the middle ages, there were several other ineffective treatments for migraine including bloodletting and even witchcraft.

In the “Bibliotheca Anatomica, Medic, Chirurgica” published in London in 1712, migraine was described along with other major types of headaches.

In the late 1930s, Graham and Wolff reported that ergotamine tart could relieve migraines. The tart was actually found to provide relief by causing vasoconstriction of dilated blood vessels in the brain. In 1950, Harold Wolff designed an experimental approach to exploring the brain and proposed that blood vessel abnormalities were associated with migraine.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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