A quick guide to migraines: symptoms, causes and treatment

March 2, 2021

When people hear the word migraine, they often think of an extra painful headache. Some might even think the term ‘migraine’ is an overly dramatic way of describing a bad headache. 

But migraines are not simply bad headaches. They are a specific type of headache which often requires specific migraine treatment. 

What’s more, migraines are more common than you may think. Around 1 in 5 Australians will suffer migraines at some point in their lives. 

Migraine symptoms can cause massive disruptions to life, and can prevent or reduce participation in work, school or family activities.

What is a migraine? 

A migraine is a neurological condition that is sometimes very distressing and disabling. Some of the common migraine symptoms may include:

  • A bad headache that’s both painful and throbbing, often on one side of the head (but can be both sides)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and even smells
  • Numbness and tingling

Migraine symptoms can last from around 4 hours to up to 3 days. 

Migraine can be divided into 5 distinct phases: prodromol (early warning signs), aura, headache, resolution and postdromol (recovery). Let’s take a look at the features of these phases:

1. Prodromol phase – early warning signs of migraine

Some people experience early warning signs of a migraine attack. This is called the prodromal phase and can include:

  • Mood changes, which can be either high (like feeling elated, on top of the world and full of energy) or low (feeling depressed and cranky)
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Other gut problems like nausea, constipation or diarrhoea
  • Drowsiness, incessant yawning or trouble speaking 
  • Sensitivity to light and sound, or difficulty with visual focus

2. Migraine aura phase

Around 20-30% of people experience visual disturbances before a migraine attack. This is known as aura. People with migraines have described aura as:

  • Bright zigzag lines
  • Flashing lights
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Blind spots.

Normal vision usually comes back after the aura phase, or after the headache phase.

3. Headache phase

This is the phase most commonly associated with migraines. 

The head pain is often pulsing and located on one side of the head (but can affect both sides). Movement usually makes the pain worse.  

Often, it’s the accompanying symptoms that are most distressing and limiting. These include nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sound and smell.

4. Resolution phase

Often, a migraine ends during sleep. Sometimes people feel better after vomiting, especially children. For others, effective migraine treatment can provide relief or conclude the current attack.  

For a few people, intervention is not helpful, and they just need to wait for the headache to ‘burn out’. 

5. Postdromol phase (recovery)

Most people feel relieved once the headache and nausea have passed. But some people report feeling drained for about 24 hours afterward. Other people report feeling energetic and alive.

Migraine causes: what’s the latest?

Clinical researchers have not yet agreed on what causes a migraine. The best theory found from recent research suggests:

  • Migraines are caused by an interplay between your brain cells and the blood vessels in your brain.
  • Certain parts of the brain seem to become super sensitised before and during migraine attacks. These parts overreact to sensations such as emotion or sudden changes to the environment. 
  • The pain centre of the trigeminal nerve (a nerve within your neck and head) can activate, causing pain in the head or upper neck. 

It’s unclear why these processes happen to some people and not others. One common risk factor is a family history of migraines.

Migraines also tend to be more common in women than men. And both children and adults can experience them.

Common migraine triggers

There are a variety of triggers that can cause migraines, but some of the common ones include:

  • Hormonal changes (high oestrogen levels) and the oral contraceptive pill for women
  • Overstimulation of your senses (flashing lights, strong smells or noisy environments)
  • Stress and changes of routine
  • Too little sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Intense physical activity
  • Changes in the weather (some people experience migraines caused by thunderstorms)
  • Alcoholic drinks (especially red wine and beer)
  • Cheese, chocolate, red wine and monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hunger, especially from skipping meals.

How to get rid of a migraine

If you think you have—or have had—a migraine, you should talk to a doctor. A doctor will want to ask you some questions about your migraine symptoms. They may recommend certain tests to investigate other potential health problems that could be causing your migraines.

If you’ve been diagnosed with migraine before and your symptoms change, you should speak to a doctor. If you start having more frequent migraine attacks you should also speak to a doctor. 

Doctors can’t cure migraines, but they can give you medicines that help you manage your migraine symptoms. These include:

  • Simple pain relief such as paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Anti-nausea medicines to help with vomiting and nausea

For some, these types of medicines don’t get rid of migraines. 

If so, a doctor may suggest you try a targeted migraine medicine that you should take as soon as the headache phase starts. These are known as ‘triptans’. This migraine treatment helps constrict blood vessels and is specifically targeted to migraines. This means they don’t work for other types of headaches, like tension headaches.

If you need to talk to a doctor, or want to request a script for migraine medicine, InstantScripts’ doctors can help. 

To speak with an InstantScripts GP:

Request Consultation

To request a script:

Find Your Medication

You can try these migraine relief strategies to help ease the pain:

  • Lie down in a quiet, dark room
  • Massage your scalp or temples
  • Place a cold cloth over your forehead or behind your neck

How to prevent migraines

While it’s impossible to control all potential migraine causes and triggers, you can make some intentional changes to your lifestyle that may be beneficial:

  • Manage stress: use relaxation techniques like mindfulness and breathing to settle overactive nerves. If you find you are stressed a lot, speak with a doctor. 
  • Exercise: making sure you begin with gentle activity, building up slowly. Intense exercise can cause migraine. Exercise can also help manage stress.
  • Get good quality sleep
  • Hydrate well: men should drink about 13 cups of fluids and women should drink 9 cups each day.
  • Avoid skipping meals
  • Quit smoking

Some people who are prone to migraine also find it useful to keep a headache diary. This can help you and your doctor identify migraine causes. A diary can also help work out the best type of migraine treatment for you. 

2021 Migraine World Summit

Millions of people world-wide suffer from migraine. You are not alone. If you’re interested in the latest research and recommendations for migraine, you can attend the 2021 Migraine World Summit

Running from March 18–26, the summit is the largest worldwide virtual event for migraine and headache disorders.
 
With 32 experts, including doctors and specialists, you’ll discover cutting-edge information on:

  • new migraine treatments
  • research
  • strategies to help people manage chronic migraine and bad headaches
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