Overview of Migraines

A migraine headache is a throbbing or pulsating headache that is often one sided (unilateral) and associated with nausea; vomiting; sensitivity to light, sound, and smells; sleep disruption; and depression. Migraine attacks are often recurrent and tend to become less severe as the migraine sufferer ages.

Types of Migraines

Migraines are classified according to the symptoms they produce. The two most common types are migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Less common types include the following:

  • Abdominal migraine
  • Basilar artery migraine
  • Carotidynia
  • Headache-free migraine (auro without migraine)
  • Ophthalmoplegic migraine/Ocular migraine
  • Status migrainosus

Some women experience migraine headaches just prior to or during menstruation. These headaches, which are called menstrual migraines, may be related to hormonal changes and often do not occur or lessen during pregnancy. Other women develop migraines for the first time during pregnancy or after menopause.

Migraine with aura is characterized by a neurological phenomenon (aura) that is experienced 10 to 30 minutes before the headache. Most auras are visual and are described as bright shimmering lights around objects or at the edges of the field of vision (called scintillating scotomas) or zigzag lines, castles (teichopsia), wavy images or hallucinations. Others experience temporary vision loss. Nonvisual auras include

  • motor weakness
  • speech or language abnormalities
  • dizziness, vertigo
  • tingling or numbness (parasthesia) of the face, tongue or extremities

Migraine without aura is the most prevalent type and may occur on one or both sides (bilateral) of the head. Tiredness or mood changes may be experienced the day before the headache. Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light (photophobia) often accompany migraine without aura.

Abdominal migraine is most common in children with a family history of migraine. Symptoms include abdominal pain without a gastrointestinal cause (may last up to 72 hours), nausea, vomiting, and flushing or paleness (pallor). Children who have abdominal migraine often develop typical migraine as they age.

Basilar artery migraine involves a disturbance of the basilar artery in the brainstem. Symptoms include severe headache, vertigo, double vision, slurred speech and poor muscle coordination. This type occurs primarily in young people.

Carotidynia, also called lower-half headache or facial migraine, produces deep, dull, aching, and sometimes piercing pain in the jaw or neck. There is usually tenderness and swelling over the carotid artery in the neck. Episodes can occur several times weekly and last a few minutes to hours. This type occurs more commonly in older people. Doppler ultrasound studies of the carotid arteries are normal.

Headache-free migraine is characterized by the presence of aura without headache. This occurs in patients with a history of migraine with aura.

Ophthalmoplegic migraine begins with a headache felt in the eye and is accompanied by vomiting. As the headache progresses, the eyelid droops (ptosis) and nerves responsible for eye movement become paralyzed. Ptosis may persist for days or weeks.

Status migraine is a rare type involving intense pain that usually lasts longer than 72 hours. The patient may require hospitalization.

Migraine Incidence and Prevalence

Migraines afflict about 30 million people in the United States. They may occur at any age, but usually begin between the ages of 10 and 40 and diminish after age 50. Some people experience several migraines a month, while others have only a few migraines throughout their lifetime. Approximately 75 percent of migraine sufferers are women.

Publication Review By: Sandeep K. Aggarwal, M.D., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013