What is a Migraine?


We’ve all heard the term before, but what exactly is a migraine headache? And how does it differ from other headache types?

One way to tell it’s a migraine is by the length of time it lasts. A migraine isn’t going to go away in a half-hour. Unless you are very, very, very lucky. Chances are your headache, if it truly is a migraine, is going to last anywhere from four to seventy-two hours.

Yes, that’s right.

Seventy or more hours is not common, but neither is unheard of. Should your headache last that long, of course, you should be in the emergency room. Don’t wait nearly that long to seek medical attention.

A migraine usually isn’t just a headache. This is to say that one or more of the following usually accompanies a migraine: nausea, vomiting, extreme pain, sensitivity to lights, and auras. It is the aura component, perhaps, that most especially defines and differentiates a migraine, though, it must be admitted, some people do suffer migraines without experiencing auras.

Therein lies the difficulty of treating migraines: No two are quite alike. Another person suffering from their own version of a migraine may never experience the symptoms you may experience with every migraine.

100 Million Migraneurs

No reliable records on the number of people who suffer from migraines have ever been compiled, but it has been estimated that worldwide the number of sufferers could be as high as 100 million, though that number is definitely on the high end of estimations.

Migraines are not limited to adults, either. Unfortunately, many children suffer from migraines. Regardless of how many migraine sufferers there really are, almost all estimates agree that two-thirds of migraine patients are women.

Actually, to speak of a migraine headache is somewhat misleading. In fact, there are really two types of migraines, the common migraine and the classic migraine.

Although there are differences, both result from the dilation or expansion, of blood vessels that had become constricted due to the release of serotonin. This dilation causes pain in the nerves. Both types can occur as infrequently as a few times a year or as often as a few times a week.

The common migraine is slower to develop and is often preceded by feelings of anxiety, depression or tiredness. In addition, you may find yourself subject to irritability, sudden cravings or bouts of unexplained yawning before the onset of a common migraine. Once the headache begins, common migraine is almost always limited to just one side of the head.

The classic migraine develops in a much more complex way. In fact, there are four stages in the onset of a classic migraine headache: prodrome, aura, headache, and postheadache.

Migraine Stages

The prodrome stage, like the beginning of a common migraine, may begin with feelings of fatigue, irritability, or depression. The prodrome stage takes about 24 hours before it slides into the aura stage.

The aura stage involves an expanding area of blindness caused by the narrowing of blood vessels. The blind area is girdled by a shimmering border that may increase to include up to half your field of vision in each eye.

In addition, often there are visual disturbances such as bright spots, flashing lights, and zigzagging lights. Sometimes sufferers also experience burning sensations or weakness on one side of their body. Generally, this stage lasts anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour.

The third stage occurs when those constricted blood vessels dilate and blood literally gushes to the brain. At this point, the headache as we think of it really begins with severe, throbbing pain on one side of the head, though it is not uncommon for the pain to expand to include both sides of the head. The pain often gets magnified by bright lights or loud noises.

The fourth and final stage is the post headache, characterized by tiredness to the point of outright fatigue.

Migraines differ from tension headaches in that tension headache pain tends to cover the entire head. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for migraine pain to be localized not just on one side of the head, but sometimes in one particular spot of the head, such as at the temple or behind one ear.


Last Updated on October 31, 2022