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What ARE Migraines Anyway?

April 19, 2019

Around 12 percent of Americans suffer from migraines, according to the US National Library of Medicine. But what makes a bad headache a migraine, anyway? Let’s take a look at what a migraine is and what its symptoms are.


What is a migraine?


A migraine is an extremely bad headache, and its pain is described as “intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one area of the head.” However, that’s not all. For a bad headache to be called a migraine, it also requires a number of attacks (at least 5) with a duration of anywhere from 4-72 hours each, and there may be nausea, vomiting, and light/sound sensitivity, too. Migraines can sometimes move through 4 phases:

  • Phase 1 (called prodrome): This is the 24-hour period before the actual headache strikes where you might have to pee more, or you might have weird food cravings and moodiness. You may even start yawning a lot.
  • Phase 2 (called aura): If you have this phase, you’ll see flashing lights or lines, and you might feel weak. The aura phase can happen before or during the headache.
  • Phase 3 (headache): As mentioned before, the pain of this type of headache is usually intense throbbing on one side of your head, and though it may start off mildly, it builds in severity. Other symptoms during this phase include nausea or vomiting and increased sensitivities to smell, sound, and light.
  • Phase 4 (called postdrome): After the symptoms subside, you might feel weak or confused for the next 24 hours.

What causes migraines?


There may not be a definitive answer yet, but researchers think migraines are the result of basic neurological abnormalities in the brain that come from genetic mutation. In a 2010 study, scientists discovered a mutation in the gene TRSK which affects how cells might handle the potassium ion channel. Potassium ion channels are responsible for keeping nerve cells at rest and less susceptible to pain, and these genetic abnormalities in the potassium ion channels appear to make the nerve cells more responsive to pain.


There are other more obvious similarities among people suffering from migraines. Women suffer from migraines 3 times more frequently than men, and there may be a link to hormones connected with menstruation as women who are menopausal often have fewer and less severe migraines. Another common factor is a family history of migraines or headaches, and even certain medical conditions like depression, epilepsy, and bipolar disorder, may predispose a person to migraines.


Migraines can also be triggered by certain situations or substances. For example, stress and a disrupted sleep schedule can be triggers, along with skipping meals. Certain foods, such as alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses, or cured meats, can provoke a migraine. Foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG) can also be a problem for some people. Knowing what triggers your migraines might require a little recordkeeping, but by writing down what you did and what you ate and drank before a migraine started might provide helpful information for preventing future migraines.

Understanding what a migraine is and what might trigger it can help you as you work with your physician to come up with a treatment plan. Be sure to check out Doctorpedia’s short videos from our expert physicians who can explain treatment options for migraines!

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Nan Kuhlman


Nan Kuhlman is an author, freelance writer, and part-time university professor based in Los Angeles, CA. She currently works full-time as a technical writer in Los Angeles and part-time as an online adjunct writing instructor. She has written for scholarly publications like the University of California, Davis Writing on the Edge and Chapman University’s Anastamos Interdisciplinary Journal, among others.

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