Not Just a Headache: The painful facts about migraines


More than one in 10 Americans suffer from migraines, but unless you experience them yourself you may have no idea how painful and crippling they can be. Here’s what migraines are and what can be done about them.

Migraine is more than just a bad headache

The cause of migraines is not well understood, but researchers believe they are a neurological disorder caused by brain chemistry imbalance. They cause intense pain (called an attack) that can be throbbing or pounding. But unlike headaches, they often come with other symptoms like sensitivity to light and sound, as well as nausea and auras.

Migraines can be with or without auras

Migraines occur with auras 25%-30% of the time, but they often happen without them. Auras come in many forms, including:

  • Flashing spots
  • Wavy lines
  • Blurred vision
  • Unusual smells
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Tingling sensations in your face or hands

Migraines can happen often and last a long time

Unlike headaches, which are usually short in duration, the average migraine lasts from four hours to three days — but severe attacks can last weeks, badly impacting a person’s work, family and social life. Some unfortunate people get migraines on 15 or more days per month, a condition called chronic migraine.

Anyone can get migraines

Migraines are more common in women (18%) than men (6%), but children also get them. They happen more in boys than girls, but that seems to switch in the teen years. Migraines seem to peak between the ages of 30 and 49.

Migraines are a serious medical condition

Besides the pain, research indicates a link between migraine and serious health issues, including heart disease, stroke and even suicide:

  • Migraine can increase the risk of heart disease, including heart attacks and angina.
  • It can also raise the risk of stroke, coronary events, and other related deaths by 50%.
  • Suicide attempts are three times more likely among those who have migraines compared to those with no history of migraines.

There are effective treatment options

A cure for migraines is still to come, but there are treatment options that can reduce their frequency and severity. For example, a healthcare provider skilled in migraine management can help you identify and manage factors that may trigger attacks, such as:

  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes in women, including those from oral birth control or hormone replacement therapy
  • Alcohol
  • Bright lights and glare from the sun
  • Loud noises
  • Not getting enough sleep or poor sleeping patterns

Your healthcare provider may also prescribe several types of medicine:

  • Pain-relieving medications – Once a migraine attack begins, you take these to reduce its severity.
  • Preventive medications – You take these to reduce the number of migraines and their severity. You may use them on a daily basis.
  • BOTOX® injections: BOTOX is the only FDA-approved, preventive treatment that is injected by a healthcare provider. MPCP offers BOTOX injections for adults with chronic migraines – they can prevent up to nine headache days a month. Talk to your provider to see if you are eligible, or click here to learn more.

Your healthcare provider can diagnose migraines

If you suspect migraines, no lab or imaging tests are needed to confirm it. Your MPCP provider can make the diagnosis with a medical history and physical exam. In some cases, they may refer you to a migraine specialist.


Trang Pham, M.D.Dr. Pham is a Maryland Primary Care Physicians, LLC partner and is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine. She earned her medical degree from Jefferson Medical College and sees patients in the Pasadena office.