Woman rubbing head


A migraine headache is an intense, throbbing pain on one side or both sides of the head. Migraines may also cause other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise.

What Causes Migraine Headaches?

  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Medicines, such as:
    • Medicine used to treat chest pain (nitroglycerine)
    • Birth control pills
    • Estrogen pills
    • Certain blood pressure medicines
  • Aged cheeses, chocolate, or caffeine
  • Foods or drinks that contain nitrates, glutamate, aspartame, or tyramine
  • Physical activity

Other factors that may trigger a migraine include:

  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Hunger
  • Stress, lack of sleep, too much sleep, or fatigue
  • Weather changes

What Increases the Risk of Migraine Headaches?

The following factors may make you more likely to experience migraine headaches:

  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • Family history of migraine headaches
  • Being Caucasian
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Being a woman
  • Having a hole in the heart (patent foramen ovale) or other heart problems

What are the Signs or Symptoms of Migraine Headaches?

The main symptom of this condition is pulsating or throbbing pain. Pain may:

  • Happen in any area of the head, such as on one side or both sides
  • Interfere with daily activities
  • Get worse with physical activity
  • Get worse with exposure to bright lights or loud noises

Other symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • General sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, or smells

Before you get a migraine, you may get warning signs that a migraine is developing (aura). An aura may include:

  • Seeing flashing lights or having blind spots
  • Seeing bright spots, halos, or zigzag lines
  • Having tunnel vision or blurred vision
  • Having numbness or a tingling feeling
  • Having trouble talking
  • Having muscle weakness

How are Migraine Headaches Diagnosed?

A migraine headache can be diagnosed based on:

  • Your symptoms
  • A physical exam
  • Tests, such as CT scan or MRI of the head. These imaging tests can help rule out other causes of headaches.
  • Taking fluid from the spine (lumbar puncture) and analyzing it (cerebrospinal fluid analysis, or CSF analysis)

How are Migraine Headaches Treated?

A migraine headache is usually treated with medicines that:

  • Relieve pain
  • Relieve nausea
  • Prevent migraines from coming back

Treatment may also include acupuncture and lifestyle changes like avoiding foods that trigger migraines.

Follow these Instructions at Home for Migraine Headaches:


  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your healthcare provider.
  • Do not drive or use heavy machinery while taking prescription pain medicine.
  • To prevent or treat constipation while you are taking prescription pain medicine, your healthcare provider may recommend that you:
    • Drink enough fluid to keep your urine clear or pale yellow.
    • Take over-the-counter or prescription medicines.
    • Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
    • Limit foods that are high in fat and processed sugars, such as fried and sweet foods.


  • Avoid alcohol use.
  • Do not use any products that contain nicotine or tobacco, such as cigarettes and e-cigarettes. If you need help quitting, ask your healthcare provider.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Limit your stress.

General instructions

  • Keep a journal to find out what may trigger your migraine headaches. For example, write down:
    • What you eat and drink.
    • How much sleep you get.
    • Any change to your diet or medicines.
  • If you have a migraine:
    • Avoid things that make your symptoms worse, such as bright lights.
    • It may help to lie down in a dark, quiet room.
    • Do not drive or use heavy machinery.
    • Ask your healthcare provider what activities are safe for you while you are experiencing symptoms.
    • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your healthcare provider. This is important.

Contact a healthcare provider if you develop symptoms that are different or more severe than your usual migraine symptoms.

When to Get Help Right Away for Migraine Headaches:

  • Severe migraine
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Vision loss
  • Muscles feel weak or like you cannot control them
  • Losing your balance often
  • Trouble walking
  • Fainting

This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your healthcare provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your healthcare provider.


Document Released: 12/18/2006 Document Revised: 07/07/2017 Document Reviewed: 06/05/2017
Elsevier Interactive Patient Education © 2020 Elsevier Inc.

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