Migraine: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

A stressed woman sitting alone.

What is Migraine?

A migraine is not just a type of headache, it is much more. Migraines are neurological disorders that can cause severe pain and significantly diminish a person’s quality of life. A migraine can occur at any stage in a person’s life, but it usually begins between ages 10 and 40. More than 50% of people with migraine experienced their first symptoms before age 12.

According to estimates, migraines affect about 39 million people in the United States alone, including children, and about a billion people around the world. This figures show that migraines are quite common and you would probably know someone who is suffering from a type of migraine.

Also referred to migraine headache, a migraine is a serious condition and one of the most disabling illnesses in the world. A lot of people suffering from migraine are not aware of their condition because migraine is a disease that is poorly understood. Since migraine is often undiagnosed, more than half of the people who have migraine do not receive the right treatment.

What Causes Migraine?

The cause of migraine is not understood although doctors believe that migraines may be related to changes in the brain. Genetics as well as environmental factors also play a role in the occurrence of migraines. These environmental factors serve as triggers of migraine.

What are the Triggers of Migraine?

There are a number of factors that can trigger migraine. These factors include:

What are the Symptoms of Migraine?

Woman sitting at a desk, stressed.

There are four stages of migraine: prodrome, aura, headache and post-drome. These stages have their unique symptoms.


This is the first phase of a migraine and it begins about 24 hours before migraine sets in. Symptoms of prodrome include increased thirst and urination, frequent yawning, neck stiffness, fluid retention, unexplained mood changes, constipation and food cravings.


A lot of people who have migraines do not experience this phase. An aura can occur before or during a migraine. A person who has aura may have visual disturbances. The person might see bright lights or zig-zag lines. The person may also have the sensation of being touched. Other symptoms of aura include: difficulty speaking, numbness or weakness one side of the body (similar to a stroke), uncontrollable jerking and vision loss.


A migraine can occur without headache, but when it does, the pain (throbbing or pulsing) is felt on one side of the head. If left untreated, a migraine may last between 4 to 72 hours. During this period, a person may experience the following symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, touch and smell
  • Pain that becomes severe with coughing, sneezing or movement


This is the last stage after a migraine attack. A person may feel weak, exhausted and confused, and this can last up to 24 hours. Moodiness and sensitivity to light or sound may also be experienced at this stage.

Some people with migraines are usually able to tell when they are about to have an episode. For some, it is associated with stress. A woman may experience migraine before or during her period. Most people who experience migraine often wake in the morning with symptoms.

What are the Risk Factors of Migraine?

Anyone can have a migraine, but when certain factors are present, the likelihood increases. The most important risk factor of migraine is heredity. Migraine runs in families. A person may also inherit migraine triggers. About 90% of people suffering from migraine have a family member with the condition. If a parent has migraine, there is 50% chance of a child inheriting the condition, and if both parents have it, their child has 75% chances of having the condition.

Women are three times more likely to have a migraine than men. Migraines are also more severe in women and they occur more frequently. This is largely due to fluctuations in levels of estrogen, although at a younger age, migraine is less common in females. In childhood, the incidence of migraine is higher in boys than girls, but at the onset of puberty, there is a rapid increase in the occurrence of migraine in females.

Migraines are also more likely to occur when certain conditions are present. These conditions include sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and epilepsy.

How is Migraine Treated?

A glass of water.

Migraines can be very hard to cope with. During a migraine, most people are not able to function as they should. Severe migraines can last for more than three days. Migraine attacks can occur once or twice in a month, and it may also occur almost every day (at least 15 attacks in a month). This is known as chronic daily migraine.

Besides being a difficult condition to deal with, migraine increases a person’s risk of other physical and mental conditions including stroke, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, heart disease and seizures.

If you frequently experience the symptoms mentioned above, you should see your doctor. Although there is no cure for migraine, symptoms of migraine can be relieved through medications. These medications may also prevent future attacks.

Over-the-counter drugs are often used to relieve symptoms of migraine, and they are effective for some people. Excessive use of these drugs may however lead to dependency and can lead to chronic migraine.

Besides medications, there are other things a person can do to relieve their symptoms. Drinking enough water may provide some relief as well as resting with the eyes closed in a quiet and dark room. A person may also benefit from placing an ice pack on their forehead. Certain lifestyle changes can be helpful as well in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines.

How is Migraine Prevented?

There are things you can do to prevent migraine. By avoiding common migraine triggers, you are less likely to have a migraine. But some triggers may be difficult and if not impossible to avoid. By making some simple lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk of having a migraine.

Manage Stress

Work-related stress is a common type of stress experienced by a lot of people. Stress is inevitable but you can learn to manage them through coping mechanisms. Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga is also helpful with relieving stress. In addition, certain supplements can be used to provide relief from stress.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise can help to relieve stress, which is a known trigger of migraine. Exercise would also help you to maintain a healthy weight and lose weight if you are overweight or obese. Aerobic exercises like cycling, walking and swimming are particularly helpful. However, intense exercise may cause headaches. You should exercise moderately.

Establish a Daily Routine

Changes in eating and sleep patterns can trigger a migraine in some people. Establishing a routine where you eat and sleep about the same time daily may prevent a migraine. If you are suffering from insomnia, going to bed the same time everyday can also help to improve your symptoms.