Migraines: More Than a Headache

The symptoms of a migraine headache are different than the symptoms of a milder tension headache. Migraine symptoms can be disabling, causing severe, throbbing head pain and other symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hypersensitivity to light and sound
  • Visual or sensory changes
  • Pain in a specific area of the face, head, or neck, or over a wider area
  • Problems with balance and hearing
  • Difficulty thinking clearly

A migraine is a recurring headache that causes moderate to severe throbbing and pulsating pain on one side of the head. Other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and/or sound.

In most cases, people with migraines must postpone work, school, or other responsibilities and rest until the migraine passes.

This article discusses the progressive stages of a migraine; migraine headaches' underlying causes and triggers; different types of migraines and their symptoms; and treatments that may stop an existing migraine or reduce the risk of recurring migraines.


Stages of a Migraine

Migraine headaches typically develop in stages, though not every person experiences every stage:

1. Prodrome. A prodrome is the occurrence of a symptom or set of symptoms a day or two before the intense head pain. Irritability, constipation, depression, fatigue, neck stiffness, and/or cravings for certain foods are typical. These symptoms may not be recognized immediately as a sign of a coming migraine. While not everyone experiences prodromes, they are common.

2. Aura. Some people experience an aura, a range of visual or sensory symptoms occurring either before or during a migraine. Typical sensations include:

  • Images of lights flashing
  • Zigzag lines, or black dots
  • Brief loss of vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • A prickly feeling in the legs or arms

Auras are less common than prodrome stage.

3. Migraine attack. Head pain can be pulsating or pounding and typically lasts from 4 to 72 hours. As the headache pain and other symptoms progress, it is usually impossible to keep working or continue other activities. Sitting or lying down in a quiet, darkened room is generally the best option. Exercise or even slight movements may make the pain worse.

4. Postdrome. A person typically feels exhausted as the migraine subsides. This final phase is called a postdrome or—colloquially—a migraine hangover. It may continue for a day or two after the headache has ended.

Migraine symptoms vary widely from person to person, and sometimes from one episode to the next in the same individual.


Who Gets Migraines?

Migraine headaches are the most common neurological disorder in adults, affecting about 14% of the adult population,1 and can come and go over a lifetime.

About 75% of people with migraines are women,2 though men and children can get them, too. Those between the ages of 15 and 55 are the most affected, with the prevalence of migraines starting to decline after age 55.3 Migraines are generally less severe after age 50.4


  • 1.Burch RC, Loder S, Loder E, Smitherman TA. The prevalence and burden of migraine and severe headache in the United States: updated statistics from government health surveillance studies. Headache. 2015;55(1):21-34.
  • 2.Migraine. Office of Women's Health, Womenshealth.gov, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • 3.Smitherman TA, Burch R, Sheikh H, Loder E. The prevalence, impact, and treatment of migraine and severe headaches in the United States: a review of statistics from national surveillance studies. Headache. 2013;53(3):427-36.
  • 4.Kelman L. Migraine changes with age: IMPACT on migraine classification. Headache. 2006 Jul-Aug;46(7):1161-71.