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Migraine Headache Overview

A migraine headache is a type of vascular, or muscle contraction headache that includes abnormal muscle contractions of the head. Migraine headaches are usually marked by severe pain on one or both sides of the head, an upset stomach, and, at times, visual disturbances. Women are 3 times more likely than men to have migraine headaches. Migraine headaches are a type of vascular, or muscle contraction headache, that appear to involve the abnormal, involuntary tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles. Migraine headaches do not usually require medical attention, in spite of their intensity of pain and disturbance of regular, day-to-day activities, but some headaches may signal a more serious disorder and call for medical attention.

Migraine is an intense form of headache that usually disrupts the daily functions of life for the duration of the migraine, and possibly for 1 to 2 more days after the pain subsides. Migraines usually last from 4 to 72 hours, and can occur as frequently as every day or as rarely as once a year. Migraines affect as many as 24 million people in the United States; 16 million of those affected are women. Migraine headaches are responsible for the loss of billions of dollars annually in lost work, poor job performance, and direct medical costs. Approximately 18% of women and 6% of men will experience at least one migraine attack per year. More than three million women and one million men have one or more severe headaches each month. Migraines usually start in adolescence, and are rare after age 60. While the cause of migraine is not known, it is believed to have a hormonal and genetic component due the higher number of women who experience migraine headache, and the frequent concurrence of onset of migraines with puberty.

Two types of migraine headaches are recognized by the medical community. Eighty percent of migraine sufferers experience a "migraine without aura,” formerly called “common migraine.” In “migraine with aura," formerly called “classic migraine,” pain is preceded or accompanied by visual or other sensory disturbances, including seeing bright flashing lights and zigzag lines, partial obstruction of the visual field, numbness or tingling of the arms or legs, and a feeling of heaviness in the muscles. Symptoms are often more pronounced on one side of the body, and may begin as early as 72 hours before the onset of pain, with fatigue and exhausting for up to 48 hours after the migraine headache pain has passed.

When should you seek medical attention for headache?

Migraine headaches may last a day or more, and can strike as often as several times a week or as rarely as once every few years. While migraine headaches usually do not require medical attention, some types of headache are signals of more serious disorders and call for prompt medical care. These include: sudden, severe headache or sudden headache associated with a stiff neck; headaches associated with fever, convulsions, or accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness; headaches following a blow to the head, or associated with pain in the eye or ear; persistent headache in a person who was previously headache free, and recurring headaches in children. Please see your health care provider if you or your child experiences these types of headaches.


National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 2009. Headache: Hope Through Research. (Online) accessed 02.22.2010

Kim A. Sharp, MLn. 2008. Migraine. (Online) accessed 02.22.2010

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