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Migraines: Triggers, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

By Heather Fishel

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Headaches can appear any time, anywhere, and during any activity. Unfortunately, for many people, a headache is so much more than just a dull pain or frustrating ache. For those who experience migraines, the throbbing pain and pulsing sensations can be serious and debilitating.

Migraines are the sixth most disabling illness in the world, and they can affect you for days at a time. Fortunately, migraines and their symptoms can be treated.

What Causes Migraines?

Migraines are more than a basic headache. They’re actually considered a neurological condition that comes with many different symptoms. A migraine can certainly cause head pain – but it can also affect your physical movements, digestive system, and vision.

Medical experts aren’t certain what exactly causes migraines to happen. It’s possible that changes in the brain, such as in nerve communication, chemical imbalances, or blood vessels, can lead to migraines.

What is known, though, is that there are several triggers that can cause migraines. These vary from person to person. Triggers can include:

  • Hormonal changes
  • Stress/Emotional shifts
  • A lack of sleep
  • Poor posture
  • Certain foods or food additives 
  • Medications 

Anyone of any age can get a migraine, even if they’ve never experienced one before. However, migraines do often run in families, so if your relatives get migraines, you might too.

Common Migraine Symptoms

Although different triggers can cause migraine headaches, the symptoms are often similar in sufferers. Pain, visibility issues (e.g., auras or vision loss), nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms of migraines.

Migraines typically progress through four stages, which cause different symptoms, complications, and frustrations. These stages can happen differently for each individual. In fact, some people might not go through all of the stages.

The four stages of migraines and their symptoms are:


The prodrome stage happens about one to two days before a migraine actually begins. The symptoms start out so subtle that you might not even realize they’re hinting at a migraine that’s in progress.

The symptoms of this stage can include:

  • Mood shifts, like swings from depression to happiness
  • Cravings for certain foods
  • Stiffness in your neck
  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Frequent yawning
  • Constipation


The aura stage is often the first very obvious sign of a migraine. Auras can happen before a migraine fully hits, or they might happen while a migraine is already underway.

Auras typically cause visual symptoms that last for anywhere from a few minutes to a full hour, and may include:

  • Seeing shapes, bright spots, or light flashes
  • Loss of vision
  • Pins and needles sensations in the arms or legs
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body or the face
  • Problems speaking
  • Hearing noises or music
  • Uncontrollable movements


In the attack stage, the migraine is in full swing. This stage can last anywhere from 4-hours to 3 days, if untreated.

When an attack begins, it can cause symptoms such as:

  • Pain on one side of the head
  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • Throbbing or pulsing pain
  • Sensitivity to lights, sounds, smells, or touch
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting


When the postdrome phase begins, your migraine is fading. Symptoms are beginning to disappear, and you’re on the path to feeling better. You can feel exhausted or drained for as long as a day. You might even feel elated.

Treat Migraines As Soon As Possible

The key to managing your migraines and their symptoms is seeking treatment. If you don’t take any action when you feel a migraine beginning, you can wind up experiencing painful, debilitating symptoms for anywhere from 72-hours to a full week.

With treatment, however, an average migraine typically lasts about 4-hours.

Treating a migraine means treating both the head pain you’re experiencing and the other symptoms that might affect the rest of your body. For example, because nausea is a common symptom with migraines, it’s important to treat your nausea along with your headache. Otherwise, the nausea might prevent you from being able to take medication that could reduce the migraine severity.

If you’re able to quickly act and treat your migraines, you may reduce their impact on your health and daily life. It’s important to seek treatment as soon as you feel a migraine may be getting underway.

Migraines Can Be Treated in Many Ways

The good news for migraine sufferers is that there are several available treatment options. Since there are so many options, you’ll be able to easily find one that effectively manages and limits your migraine symptoms.

The most common migraine treatments include:

  • Pain relief medications, such as over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Nausea medications, which can be prescribed by a doctor
  • Preventative medications, which are for those who experience four or more migraine days each month
  • Biofeedback, which helps you deal with potential migraine triggers
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is a device that can reduce migraine pain

Ultimately, you may need to try a few different migraine treatment options until you find the one that works best for you. Make sure to talk with your doctor about different treatment options and any treatments you’re interested in trying ahead of your next migraine.

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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