A migraine is usually a severe headache felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head.
Some people also have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraine is a common health condition, affecting around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. They usually begin in early adulthood.
There are several types of migraine, including:
- migraine with aura – where there are warning signs before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
- migraine without aura – where the migraine occurs without warning signs
- migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop
Some people have migraines frequently, up to several times a week. Other people only have a migraine occasionally. It is possible for years to pass between migraine attacks.
Read more about the symptoms of migraine.
When to seek medical advice
You should see your GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms that cannot be controlled with over the counter painkillers.
You should also make an appointment to see your GP if you have frequent migraines (on more than five days a month), even if they can be controlled with medication, as you may benefit from preventative treatment.
You should call 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone you are with experiences:
- paralysis or weakness in one or both arms and/or one side of the face
- slurred or garbled speech
- a sudden agonising headache resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
- headache along with a high temperature (fever), stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision and a rash
These symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a stroke or meningitis, and should be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible.
Read more about diagnosing migraines.
What causes migraines?
The exact cause of migraines is unknown, although they are thought to be the result of temporary changes in the chemicals and blood vessels in the brain.
Around half of all people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that genes may play a role.
Some people find migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers, which can include starting their period, stress, tiredness and certain foods or drinks.
Read more about the causes of migraines.
How migraines are treated
There is no cure for migraines, but there are a number of treatments available to help reduce the symptoms.
- painkillers – including over the counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen
- triptans – medications that can help reverse the changes in the brain that may cause migraines
- anti-emetics – medications often used to reduce nausea and vomiting
During an attack, many people find that sleeping or lying in a darkened room can also help.
Read more about treating migraines.
If you suspect a specific trigger is causing your migraines, such as stress or a certain type of food, avoiding this trigger may help reduce your risk of experiencing migraines.
It may also help to maintain a generally healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, sleep and meals, as well as ensuring you stay well hydrated and limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
If your migraines are severe or you have tried avoiding possible triggers and you are still experiencing symptoms, your GP may prescribe medication to help prevent further attacks.
Medications used to prevent migraines include the anti-seizure medication topiramate and a medication called propranolol that is usually used to treat high blood pressure.
Read more about preventing migraines.
Migraines can severely affect your quality of life and stop you carrying out your normal daily activities. Some people find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.
However, a number of effective treatments are available to reduce the symptoms and prevent further attacks.
Migraine attacks can sometimes get worse over time, but they tend to gradually improve over many years for most people.
A migraine is usually felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head
Page last reviewed: 14/04/2014
Next review due: 14/04/2016