Is your headache a migraine?


In this article:

  • Headaches are just one symptom of a migraine attack — others include vision issues, stomach pain and nausea, and there are different types of migraines, too.

  • Migraine triggers can be different for everyone, but identifying yours and learning to avoid them will help you experience fewer migraines.

  • New and innovative migraine treatments are available and your provider can help determine which is best for you, as well as lifestyle changes that may help minimize migraines.

If you experience migraines, you are not alone. The American Medical Association estimates that nearly 10% of people globally experience migraines. And while many people equate migraine pain with headaches, headaches are just one symptom of migraines. They can impact other aspects of your health, and when migraines happen frequently the symptoms can be debilitating — interfering with work, school and day-to-day life.

To better understand migraines — as well as how to identify one, what triggers them, and the latest migraine treatments — we spoke with Elena Robinson, M.D., a neurologist specializing in headache management with Swedish Neurology.

There’s more than one type of migraine

Migraines are more than just an ordinary run-of-the-mill headache; they are a complex neurological condition that can impact your whole body.

“Migraine disorder is usually associated with headaches,” says Dr. Robinson. “But patients may experience other symptoms such as sinus congestion, neck pain, ear pain and facial pain as well as sensitivity to light, sounds, smells, motion and heat.”

Some patients might not feel any headache pain at all during a migraine attack. That’s why, Dr. Robinson says, it is important to understand and identify other types of migraines and their symptoms. Because when you know what kind of migraines you have, you’ll be better prepared to treat them.

Types of migraines include:

  • Chronic migraines: headache pain that occurs for at least 15 days out of each month for three months in a row.
  • Episodic or acute: migraines that cause symptoms for 14 or fewer days out of the month.
  • Migraines with aura: a migraine that is preceded by patterns, flashing lights or zigzags in your vision.
  • Hemiplegic migraines: a rare type of migraine that causes weakness and tingling on one side of the body.
  • Retinal migraines: a migraine that causes vision loss in one eye.
  • Abdominal migraines: most common in children, these migraines cause pain around the belly button and may also cause nausea and make the face look pale.
  • Medication overuse headaches: migraines that result from the overuse of over-the-counter pain medicines.

Headaches that are accompanied by weakness, tingling or vision loss may be a sign of a stroke or another serious condition. If this happens to you, seek immediate medical attention.

Migraine triggers vary

Sometimes migraines happen with no known cause, but they can be related to other health conditions. And they are frequently “triggered” by a variety of factors, including your environment, how you feel, illnesses and hormones. Common migraine triggers include:

  • Alcohol or caffeine
  • Bright light, including both natural light or fluorescent lights
  • Dehydration
  • Foods, such as dairy or chocolate
  • Hormonal changes (including those during the menstrual cycle or menopause)
  • Overuse of pain medicine
  • Sleep disruptions or not enough sleep
  • Stress
  • Strong smells
  • Weather changes, such as extreme heat or cold or severe storms

If you are interested in identifying your migraine triggers, a migraine journal is a good way to start. You can do this with pen and paper, or on your phone or another digital device. When you get a migraine, record the date and time, and the migraine’s length. Rate the intensity of your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being mild pain and 10 being severe pain. Describe the migraine and document any potential triggers, like foods you ate, medications you took and your activities that day.

After a few weeks or months, you will start to see patterns that point to a migraine trigger, and you can use that information to talk to your provider about a treatment plan. And once you’ve identified your migraine triggers, it will be easier to avoid them, or to take preventive medication if you know you’ve been exposed to a trigger.

The right treatment can help stop migraine attacks

“Once patients understand that they are experiencing a migraine and know what treatment options are available it becomes much easier to manage migraines,” says Dr. Robinson. “There are new FDA-approved migraine medications available that block the nerve pain and inflammation associated with migraines. Some prevent migraines, others treat acute migraines, and one is approved for both acute and preventive treatment.”

She adds that doctors are also now prescribing Botox for migraines.

“Botox is an excellent treatment option for patients with intractable migraines, which are severe, persistent migraines that don’t respond to other medications,” she says. “Patients who are interested in Botox for migraines must meet certain criteria. This includes first trying at least three preventive medications from three different classes of medications and at least two different migraine-specific treatments.”

Other preventive medications the team at Swedish uses to help patients minimize the pain and discomfort of migraines include:

  • Antidepressants and/or anti-seizure medicines that can prevent migraines.
  • Behavioral therapy to help reduce stress that may trigger migraines.
  • Blood pressure medicines (beta blockers or calcium channel blockers.
  • Hormone medications to balance the hormone levels that affect migraines.

Your provider might recommend lifestyle changes such as:

  • Easing migraine pain with a cold compress or ice pack on your head.
  • Getting at least eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Increasing exercise and physical activity on days that you don’t have a migraine.
  • Resting in a quiet, dim room during a migraine.
  • Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medicines like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen.

“Patients who experience migraines should ask their provider for help as soon as possible,” says Dr. Robinson. “With all of the treatments available, you have many options to help you avoid and stop migraine pain.”                                                                                                                                   


Learn more and find a provider

To learn more about the migraine treatment options available to you, contact Swedish Neurology. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Understanding chronic pain

What women should know about strokes

That twinge is telling you something. Don't ignore back pain.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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