Specific pain conditions

A migraine is much more than a really bad headache. It hurts like a headache, but is different from a headache with a shifting assortment of painful, disorienting, and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

Migraine symptoms include headache, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, and lightheadedness. The pain associated with a migraine will usually be focused on one side of the head, although it can be on both sides, and is often described as throbbing or pulsating.

Your body may send up a warning flare that a migraine is coming. If you're like some migraineurs (a term borrowed from French to refer to migraine sufferers), your body will send you a warning when a migraine approaches. For several hours to a day before a migraine, you might sense a feeling that the migraine is coming. Feelings may include irritability, food cravings, diarrhea, constipation, and mood changes.

About 1 in 4 people with migraine receive clearer, more significant hints from their body. These warning signs are known as auras. An aura may come in the form of a visual hallucination, including blurred or tunnel vision, blind spots, and zigzag lines floating or pulsating in your field of vision. Other types of aura include numbness in the face or in the extremities, mental confusion, or difficulty speaking.

Listen to your body's "hints" of what's to come so you can plan ahead and avoid the onslaught of symptoms. You can take a pain medication or go to bed early to catch up on rest.

Experts still seek the root cause of migraines. The cause of migraines is not completely clear. It was once thought that changes in blood vessels sparked migraines. Most experts now believe that a migraine may be due to changes along a nerve pathway in our brains. Shifts in blood flow and levels of certain brain chemicals may also play a role.

You may be able to solve the mystery of your migraines. Next time you're hit by a migraine, do yourself a favour: write it down! A migraine is something you want to forget as quickly as possible, but recording the unpleasant experience for posterity will help you avoid another migraine in the future.

Note everything you can about the moment your migraine struck: the time, temperature, weather conditions, what you've eaten, how much sleep you've gotten, and where you are in your monthly cycle if you're a woman. One or more of the noted factors might turn out to be your migraine trigger.

Your migraine trigger may be totally unique to you. The list of potential migraine triggers is long and varied. Some of the most often cited migraine triggers include:

  • foods and drinks such as alcohol (especially red wine), chocolate, or foods that have been aged, cured, cultured, fermented, pickled, or marinated
  • substances such as caffeine, aspartame, or monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • stress
  • lack of sleep or changes in sleep patterns
  • changes in barometric pressure, weather, or altitude
  • sensory overload, like flashing lights or strong odours
  • hormonal fluctuations, such as during puberty, during a woman's menstrual cycle, or through the use of oral contraceptives or hormone therapy

For more information about migraine headaches, see our migraine condition article.