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Migraine: Overview and Risk Factors

Migraine headaches are common. Although not life–threatening, they are painful and debilitating: Each year migraines cause more than 150 million lost workdays and more than 300,000 lost school days in the United States alone.

In most cases, migraines begin gradually and occur on only one side of the head. The pain is usually described as “pulsating” or “throbbing.” It usually lasts for several hours, and can sometimes last for days. Many migraine–sufferers say movement or activity worsens the headache, and they often prefer to lie still in a dark, quiet room until the headache goes away.

In addition, migraines are often associated with symptoms beyond the typical headache. These symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, photophobia (fear of light), phonophobia (fear of sound), and difficulty speaking.

Before the headache starts, some people experience unusual sensory experiences known as an aura. These may include visual changes (such as flashing lights or “zig–zag” lines), altered taste or smell, or tingling in the hands, tongue, or face. The aura may last for a few minutes or up to an hour, and the headache follows immediately afterwards.

Although doctors do not know exactly why migraines occur, there are several known triggers that can cause migraine attacks. These include stress, menstrual periods, overexertion, lack of sleep, fasting, bright lights, strong odors, changes in the weather, birth control pills, and certain food substances, such as dairy products, chocolate, eggs, or other foods (see Nutritional Considerations).

Risk Factors

  • Genetics: Migraines tend to run in families.
  • Gender: Women are affected about three times more often than men.


Migraine: Diagnosis and Treatment >>