Migraine causes attacks (episodes) of headaches, often with feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting). Treatment options include avoiding possible triggers, painkillers, anti-inflammatory painkillers, anti-sickness medicines, and triptan medicines. A medicine to prevent migraine attacks is an option if the attacks are frequent or severe.
This leaflet is part of our series on migraine
What is migraine?
Migraine is a condition that causes attacks (episodes) of headaches. Other symptoms such as feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting) are also common. Between migraine attacks, the symptoms go completely.
Who gets migraine?
Migraine is common. About 1 in 4 women and about 1 in 12 men develop migraine at some point in their lives. It most commonly first starts in childhood or as a young adult. Some people have frequent attacks - sometimes several a week. Others have attacks only now and then. Some people may go for years between attacks. In some people, the migraine attacks stop in later adult life. However, in some cases the attacks continue (persist) throughout life.
What are the types and symptoms of migraine?
There are two main types of migraine attack:
- Migraine attack without aura - sometimes called common migraine.
- Migraine attack with aura - sometimes called classic migraine.
Migraine without aura
This is the most common type of migraine. Symptoms include the following:
- The headache is usually on one side of the head, typically at the front or side. Sometimes it is on both sides of the head. Sometimes it starts on one side, and then spreads all over the head. The pain is moderate or severe and is often described as throbbing or pulsating. Movements of the head may make it worse. It often begins in the morning, but may begin at any time of the day or night. Typically, it gradually gets worse and peaks after 2-12 hours, then gradually eases off. However, it can last from 4 to 72 hours.
- Other migraine symptoms that are common:
- Feeling sick (nausea).
- Being sick (vomiting).
- Not liking bright lights or loud noises, so that you may just want to lie in a dark room.
- Other symptoms that sometimes occur:
- Being off food.
- Blurred vision.
- Poor concentration.
- Stuffy nose.
- Tummy (abdominal) pain.
- Passing lots of urine.
- Going pale.
- Scalp tenderness.
- Sensations of heat or cold.
Migraine with aura
About 1 in 4 people with migraine have migraine with aura. The symptoms are the same as those described above (migraine without aura), but also include a warning sign (an aura) before the headache begins.
- Visual aura is the most common type of aura. Examples include a temporary loss of part of vision, flashes of light, objects may seem to rotate, shake, or boil.
- Numbness and pins and needles are the second most common type of aura. Numbness usually starts in the hand, travels up the arm, then involves the face, lips, and tongue. The leg is sometimes involved.
- Problems with speech are the third most common type of aura.
- Other types of aura include an odd smell, food cravings, a feeling of well-being, other odd sensations.
One of the above auras may develop, or several may occur one after each other. Each aura usually lasts just a few minutes before going, but can last up to 60 minutes. The aura usually goes before the headache begins.The headache usually develops within 60 minutes of the end of the aura, but it may develop a lot sooner than that - often straight afterwards. Sometimes, just the aura occurs and no headache follows. Most people who have migraine with aura also have episodes of migraine without aura.
Phases of a typical migraine attack
A migraine attack can typically be divided into four phases:
- A warning (premonitory) phase occurs in up to half of people with migraine. You may feel irritable, depressed, tired, have food cravings, or just know that a migraine is going to occur. You may have these feelings for hours or even days before the onset of the headache.
- The aura phase (if it occurs).
- The headache phase.
- The resolution phase when the headache gradually fades. During this time you may feel tired, irritable, depressed, and may have difficulty concentrating.
Less common types of migraine
There are various other types of migraine which are uncommon, and some more types which are rare. These include:
Menstrual migraine. The symptoms of each attack are the same as for common migraine or migraine with aura. However, the migraine attacks are associated with periods (menstruation). There are two types of patterns. Pure menstrual migraine occurs with migraine only around periods, and not at other times. This occurs in about 1 in 7 women who have migraine. Menstrual-associated migraine occurs with migraines around periods and also at other times of the month. About 6 in 10 women who have migraine have this type of pattern. Treatment of each migraine attack is the same as for any other type of migraine. However, there are treatments that may prevent menstrual migraines from occurring. See separate leaflet called Migraine Triggered by Periods for more detail.
Abdominal migraine. This mainly occurs in children. Instead of headaches, the child has attacks of tummy (abdominal) pain which last several hours. Typically, during each attack there is no headache, or only a mild headache. There may be associated with sickness (nausea), being sick (vomiting), or aura symptoms.
Commonly, children who have abdominal migraine switch to develop common migraine in their teenage years.
Ocular migraine. This is sometimes called retinal migraine, ophthalmic migraine or eye migraine. It causes temporary loss of all or part of the vision in one eye. This may be with or without a headache. Each attack usually occurs in the same eye. There are no abnormalities in the eye itself and vision returns to normal. Important note: see a doctor urgently if you get a sudden loss of vision (particularly if it occurs for the first time). There are various causes of this and these need to be ruled out before ocular migraine can be diagnosed.
Hemiplegic migraine. This is rare. In addition to a severe headache, symptoms include weakness (like a temporary paralysis) of one side of the body. This may last up to several hours, or even days, before resolving. Therefore, it is sometimes confused with a stroke. You may also have other temporary symptoms of:
- Severe dizziness (vertigo).
- Double vision.
- Visual problems.
- Hearing problems.
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing.
Important note: see a doctor urgently if you get sudden weakness (particularly if it occurs for the first time). There are other causes of this (such as a stroke) and these need to be ruled out before hemiplegic migraine can be diagnosed.
Basilar-type migraine. This is rare. The basilar artery is in the back of your head. It used to be thought that this type of migraine originated due to a problem with the basilar artery. It is now thought that this is not the case, but the exact cause is not known.
Symptoms typically include headache at the back of the head (rather than one-sided as in common migraine). They also tend to include strange aura symptoms such as:
- Temporary blindness.
- Double vision.
- Ringing in the ears.
- Jerky eye movements.
- Trouble hearing.
- Slurred speech.
Unlike hemiplegic migraine, basilar-type migraine does not cause weakness. There is an increased risk of having a stroke with this type of migraine. Important note: see a doctor urgently if you develop the symptoms described for basilar-type migraine (particularly if they occur for the first time). There are other causes of these symptoms (such as a stroke) and these need to be ruled out before basilar-type migraine can be diagnosed
How is migraine diagnosed? Do I need any tests?
Migraine is usually diagnosed by the typical symptoms. There is no test to confirm migraine. A doctor can usually be confident that you have migraine if you have typical symptoms and by an examination which does not reveal any abnormality. However, some people with migraine have non-typical headaches. Therefore, sometimes tests are done to rule out other causes of headaches. Also, with some uncommon or rare types of migraine such as ocular migraine, tests are sometimes done to rule out other causes of these symptoms. (For example, temporary blindness can be due to various causes apart from ocular migraine.)
Remember, if you have migraine, you do not have symptoms between attacks. It is the episodic nature of the symptoms (that is, they come and then go) that is typical of migraine. A headache that does not go, or other symptoms that do not go, are not due to migraine.
Tension headaches are sometimes confused with migraine. These are the common headaches that most people have from time to time. See separate leaflet called Tension-type Headache for more details. Note: if you have migraine, you can also have tension headaches at different times to migraine attacks.
What causes migraine?
The cause is not clear. A theory that used to be popular was that blood vessels in parts of the brain become narrower (go into spasm) which accounted for the aura. The blood vessels were then thought to open wide (dilate) soon afterwards, which accounted for the headache. However, this theory is not the whole story and, indeed, may not even be a main factor. It is now thought that some chemicals in the brain increase in activity and parts of the brain may then send out confusing signals which cause the symptoms. The exact changes in brain chemicals are not known. It is also not clear why people with migraine should develop these changes. However, something may trigger a change in activity of some brain chemicals to set off a migraine attack.
Migraine is not classed as an inherited condition. However, it often occurs in several members of the same family. So, there is probably some genetic factor involved. Therefore, you are more likely to develop migraine if you have one or more close relatives who have migraine.
What are triggers?
Most migraine attacks occur for no apparent reason. However, something may trigger migraine attacks in some people. Triggers can be all sorts of things. For example:
- Diet. Dieting too fast, irregular meals, cheese, chocolate, red wines, citrus fruits, and foods containing a food additive called tyramine.
- Environmental. Smoking and smoky rooms, glaring light, VDU screens or flickering TV sets, loud noises, strong smells.
- Psychological. Depression, anxiety, anger, tiredness, stress, etc. Many people with migraine cope well with stress but have attacks when they relax, leading to so-called weekend migraine.
- Medicines. For example, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), some sleeping tablets, and the contraceptive pill. See separate leaflet called Migraine and the Contraceptive Pill or the Contraceptive Patch for more details.
- Other. Periods (menstruation), shift work, different sleep patterns, the menopause.
It may help to keep a migraine diary. Note down when and where each migraine attack started, what you were doing, and what you had eaten that day. A pattern may emerge, and it may be possible to avoid one or more things that may trigger your migraine attacks. See separate leaflets called Migraine - Triggers and Diary which gives more details and includes a diary that you can print out and fill in.
What are the treatment options for migraine?
See separate leaflet called Medicines to Treat Migraine Attacks for details of the various migraine treatment options. A brief summary is given here.
Paracetamol or aspirin works well for many migraine attacks. (Note: children aged under 16 should not take aspirin for any condition.) Take a dose as early as possible after symptoms begin. If you take painkillers early enough, they often reduce the severity of the headache, or stop it completely. A lot of people do not take a painkiller until a headache becomes really bad. This is often too late for the painkiller to work well.
Take the full dose of painkiller. For an adult this means 900 mg aspirin (usually three 300 mg tablets) or 1,000 mg of paracetamol (usually two 500 mg tablets). Repeat the dose in four hours if necessary. Soluble tablets are probably best as they are absorbed more quickly than solid tablets.
Note: recently, aspirin has fallen from favour for the treatment of many painful conditions. However, for migraine, it often works very well and is worth a try. A review of research studies published in 2010 (cited under 'References' at the end of this leaflet) confirms the place of aspirin. The review concluded that aspirin (at full dose) either takes away migraine pain, or greatly reduces the pain, within two hours in more than half of the people who take it.
Anti-inflammatory painkillers probably work better than paracetamol. They include ibuprofen and aspirin. (Strictly speaking, aspirin is an anti-inflammatory painkiller.) Other types such as diclofenac, naproxen, or tolfenamic acid need a prescription.
Dealing with nausea and sickness
Migraine attacks may cause a feeling of sickness (nausea) which can cause poor absorption of tablets into your body. If you take painkillers, they may remain in your stomach and not work well if you feel sick. You may even bring back up (vomit) the tablets. Tips that may help include:
- Use dissolvable painkillers. These are absorbed more quickly from your stomach and are likely to work better.
- You can take an anti-sickness medicine with painkillers. A doctor may prescribe one. Like painkillers, they work best if you take them as soon as possible after symptoms begin.
- An anti-sickness medicine, domperidone, is available as a suppository. Another anti-sickness medicine, prochlorperazine, comes in a buccal form which dissolves between the gum and cheek. These can be useful if you feel very sick or vomit during migraine attacks. An anti-inflammatory painkiller suppository (diclofenac) is also available.
Combinations of medicines
Some tablets contain both a painkiller and an anti-sickness medicine - for example, Paramax®, and MigraMax®. They may be convenient. However, the dose of each part (constituent) may not suit everyone, or be strong enough. You may prefer to take painkillers and anti-sickness medicines separately so that you can control the dose of each.
A triptan medicine is an alternative if painkillers do not help. These include almotriptan, eletriptan, frovatriptan, naratriptan, rizatriptan, sumatriptan, and zolmitriptan. They are not painkillers. They work by interfering with a brain chemical called 5HT. An alteration in this chemical is thought to be involved in migraine. A triptan will often reduce or put an end to (abort) a migraine attack. Some triptans work in some people and not in others. Therefore, if one triptan does not work, a different one may well do so. Most people who have migraine can usually find a triptan that works well for most migraines, and where side-effects are not too troublesome.
Do not take a triptan too early in an attack of migraine. (This is unlike painkillers described above which should be taken as early as possible.) You should take the first dose when the headache (pain) is just beginning to develop, but not before this stage. For example, do not take it during the premonitory or aura phase but wait until the headache begins. Triptans probably work much less well if taken too early on in an attack.
Preventing migraine attacks
A medicine to prevent migraine attacks is an option if you have frequent or severe attacks. It may not stop all attacks, but their number and severity are often reduced. Medicines to prevent migraine are taken every day. They are not painkillers, and are different to those used to treat each migraine attack. A doctor can advise on the various medicines available. See separate leaflet called Medicines to Prevent Migraine Attacks for more details.
Migraine and children
Some points to note about migraine in children include the following:
- Migraine is common in children. It affects about 1 in 10 school-age children.
- Symptoms can be similar to those experienced by adults. However, sometimes symptoms are not typical. For example, compared with adults, attacks are often shorter, pain may be on both sides of the head. Also, associated symptoms such as feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting) may not occur.
- Abdominal migraine (described earlier) mainly affects children.
- Common triggers in children include missing meals, lack of fluid in the body (dehydration) and irregular routines. So, if a child is troubled with migraine attacks, it is important to try to have regular routines, with set meals and bedtimes. Also, encourage children to have plenty to drink.
- Many of the medicines used by adults are not licensed for children:
Migraine when pregnant or breast-feeding
The good news is that about 2 in 3 women with migraine have an improvement whilst pregnant or breast-feeding. However, about 1 in 20 women with migraine find that their migraine gets worse whilst pregnant.
The bad news is that many of the medicines used to treat migraine should not be taken by pregnant or breast-feeding women.
- For relief of a migraine headache:
- Paracetamol is the medicine most commonly used, as it is known to be safe during pregnancy.
- Ibuprofen is sometimes used but do not take it in the last third of the pregnancy (the third trimester).
- Aspirin - avoid if you are trying to conceive, early in pregnancy, in the third trimester and whilst breast-feeding.
- Triptans - should not be taken by pregnant women at all. Triptans can be used during breast-feeding, but milk should be expressed and discarded for 12-24 hours after the dose (see manufacturer's information on the packet).
- For feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting) - no medicines are licensed in pregnancy. However, occasionally a doctor will prescribe one off licence.
- Medicines used for the prevention of migraine are not recommended for pregnant or breast-feeding women.
Further reading & references
- Migraine; NICE CKS, August 2013 (UK access only)
- The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version).; The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version). Cephalalgia. 2013 Jul;33(9):629-808. doi: 10.1177/0333102413485658.
- Botulinum toxin type A for the prevention of headaches in adults with chronic migraine; NICE Technology Appraisals, June 2012
- Diagnosis and Management of Migraine, Tension-Type, Cluster and Medication-Overuse Headache; British Association for the Study of Headache (BASH) Guidelines, (2010 - reviewed 2014)
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr John Cox