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What is Migraine?

  • Migraine is an inherited neurological disorder that is characterized by hyperexcitable brain networks that may be triggered by a variety of stimuli (e.g. alcohol, menstruation, fragrances, light glare), or become active spontaneously (even during sleep), leading to attacks.
  • The attacks often begin with a premonitory phase that may be characterized by severe fatigue, increased urination, yawning, neck pain, or sensitivity to light, noise or odors.
  • The attacks may, in one-third of sufferers, then proceed into an aura phase prior to onset of the headache. The most common type of aura consists of visual symptoms such as seeing flashing lights, squiggly lines, or losing vision in small areas of the visual field. The aura may also be associated with tingling/numbness on one side of the face and hand, and difficulty understanding or expressing speech.
  • The headache phase of migraine is often moderate or severe in intensity (in 40% of patients may be non-throbbing) and can be extremely disabling for sufferers, painful enough to cause work loss and absence from activities with family and friends.
  • Head pain is often made worse with routine activities (e.g. walking, climbing stairs). 
  • In addition to headache, migraine attacks are often associated with increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli (e.g. lights, sounds, odors), nausea or vomiting. 
  • Migraine attacks may also be associated with sinus pain or pressure, neck pain, dizziness, difficulty with concentration and mental processing, anxiety and other changes in mood. 
  • The final post-headache phase is characterized by fatigue, malaise, mood changes, difficulty with concentration, and head pain that may occur with movement, coughing, or straining. 
  • Migraine headache typically lasts about 24 hours (range of 4 hours to 3 days). However, an attack includes all phases and from beginning to end, can last several days or more.
Above content provided by the American Migraine Foundation in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2009

Contact Information

Arnold Pain Management Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
One Brookline Place, Suite 105
Brookline, MA 02445
617-278-8000
617-278-8065