What is migraine?

What do we mean when we say migraine?

What is migraine?

Migraine is a severe and painful long-term health condition. If you have migraine you will have migraine attacks, which can be a whole-body experience.

Common symptoms of an attack can include:

  • head pain,
  • problems with your sight such as seeing flashing lights,
  • being very sensitive to light, sounds and smells,
  • fatigue,
  • feeling sick and being sick.

Different people get different symptoms. When you have a migraine attack, you may not be able to function normally.

Migraine attacks usually last for between four hours and three days. Some symptoms may start about 24 hours before you get head pain, and end about 24 hours after you stop having head pain. Most people don’t have any symptoms in between migraine attacks.

"Migraine is an inherited tendency to have headaches with sensory disturbance. It’s an instability in the way the brain deals with incoming sensory information, and that instability can become influenced by physiological changes like sleep, exercise and hunger."

Professor Peter Goadsby, Professor of Neurology, King’s College London; Director, NIHR-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, King’s College Hospital London; Trustee of The Migraine Trust

Headache or migraine?

There are different types of migraine and headache and telling the difference between them can be hard. You can experience different types of headaches at different times of your life. If you have migraine you may also experience other types of headache. Keeping a migraine diary is useful and can help to identify the type of headache you’re having. Getting the right diagnosis is important so you can manage your headaches and find the most suitable treatments.

Are there different types of migraine?

There are different types of migraine. There is an international classification system for migraine which doctors use to diagnose and treat them.

The most common types of migraine fall into two categories:

Migraine with aura also covers some rare types of migraine such as hemiplegic migraine and migraine with brainstem aura.

Not everyone will have a ‘typical’ migraine. Your experience of migraine will be unique to you.

What is the treatment?

Migraine is complex and there are different treatments available. The right treatment for you will depend on the type of migraine, your symptoms, how often you have attacks and how bad they are. It will also depend on your medical history.

Migraine treatment usually includes acute treatment such as painkillers and anti-sickness medication to stop or shorten an attack. If you are having more than four attacks a month you can ask your GP about preventive treatment. This is usually taken every day to reduce how often you have attacks and how bad they are.

Reviewing any lifestyle factors or triggers that may contribute to the attacks, such as stress, change in routine and sleep patterns, can help. There is currently no cure for migraine.

What causes migraine?

Scientists and doctors think migraine is the result of abnormal brain activity affecting nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain. We don’t know what causes this brain activity, although for many people there is a link to their genes. If you are sensitive to migraine there are certain triggers which can have an impact. These include stress, skipping meals and low blood sugar, alcohol, hormonal changes (such as periods or menopause), lack of sleep and the environment you are in (lighting, temperature).