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Health Library

Migraine Headaches

What Is a Migraine Headache?

A migraine headache is an intense throbbing headache that may be accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. It can be associated with nausea, dizziness, or other neurologic symptoms, and can last from several hours to several days. Migraine headaches are very common, with over 28 million people estimated to suffer from them in the US.

A common migraine includes moderate to severe pain and is typically felt on one side of the head, although it can affect both sides of the head in some individuals. Usually this headache has a gradual onset with a crescendo-like pattern. It often feels similar to a flu-like illness. It can affect vision, hearing, or smell. Patients are often worse with activity and often seek rest in a dark, quiet room. Nausea, vomiting, and dizziness can often accompany this headache.

After the headache passes, patients often experience mood changes or weakness, or are very fatigued.

Common Causes

Although the exact cause of a migraine is not known, many researchers believe that a migraine headache could be caused by abnormal brain stem activity or changes in the trigeminal nerve. This could lead to changes in blood vessels in the brain. Many patients have certain triggering agents or events that lead to a migraine. Examples of different triggering agents include stress, bright lights, medications, getting too much or too little sleep, certain smells, and foods such as alcohol, cheese, chocolate, and foods containing aspartame or MSG. Hormone changes can also affect migraine patterns.


There are extensive treatment options to relieve or manage migraine headaches. Treatment options often depend on the severity and frequency of the headaches.

Some medications are used to treat active migraines and other medications are used to prevent migraines. There are extensive medications that have been tried in both categories. Examples include NSAIDs, anti-nausea medication, beta blockers, anti-convulsants, or triptans.

Other therapies such as acupuncture have also been tried for treatment of migraine headaches. There are other, more interventional approaches that have been used such as occipital nerve blocks or trigger point injections.

Botox has been FDA-approved as a preventative treatment for chronic migraines. Botox can be given by injection on a three-month interval to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of migraine headaches. Since this is being used as a preventative treatment, it might reduce the need for other medications.

If you suffer from headaches, you should consider consulting with your physician to determine the exact cause of your headaches and to develop a treatment plan that is optimal for you.

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