The pain of a migraine headache is often described as an intense pulsing or throbbing pain in one area of the head. It is often accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. Migraine is three times more common in women than in men. Some individuals can predict the onset of a migraine because it is preceded by an “aura,” visual disturbances that appear as flashing lights, zig-zag lines or a temporary loss of vision.

People with migraine tend to have recurring attacks triggered by a lack of food or sleep, exposure to light, or hormonal irregularities (only in women). Anxiety, stress, or relaxation after stress can also be triggers. For many years, scientists believed that migraines were linked to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head. Investigators now believe that migraine is caused by inherited abnormalities in genes that control the activities of certain cell populations in the brain.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Throbbing or pounding pain on one side of your head (or both)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disturbances in your hearing or vision (such as flashes of light) that often start 10 to 30 minutes before the headache
  • Parts of your body may feel numb, weak, or tingly
  • Light, noise, and movement — especially bending over — make your head hurt worse; you want to lie down in a dark, quiet room
  • Your feet and hands feel cold and may look bluish


No one knows for certain what causes migraine. They can run in families. Researchers do know that something triggers blood vessels in the head to tighten and then expand, a process that irritates the nerves surrounding those blood vessels. Things that can trigger migraine include the following.

  • Abnormal blood levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin
  • Medicines for high blood pressure, angina, and arthritis
  • Certain foods and alcohol; missing meals; too much sun; sleeping too little or too much
  • Hormones and menstruation
  • Certain odors, such as perfume or cigarette smoke
  • Stress