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Migraines are painful, sometimes debilitating headaches often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, noise and smell. These headaches often occur on only one side of the head, but the pain can shift to the other side of the head or can occur on both sides simultaneously. Migraines involve changes in chemicals and blood vessels in the brain, which trigger pain signals leading to headaches and other symptoms. The more inflammation there is, the more intense the migraine.

Risk Factors

  • Family history of migraines increases risk of developing migraines.
  • Women are three times more likely to develop migraines than men.
  • Migraines commonly begin during the adolescent or young adult years.
  • Risk increases if diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, asthma or epilepsy.


The symptoms of migraines can occur in various combinations and include:

  • Throbbing headache on one side of the head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, noise and smells
  • Headache worsened by physical activity
  • Headache lasts anywhere from 4 to 72 hours
  • Blind spots, wavy lines or flashing lights (aura)
  • Have numbness or a “pins-and-needles” sensation in either the left or right hand
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Fever (rare)


Migraines may be triggered by food, stress and changes in daily routine, although it is not clear how or why these changes lead to migraines.

  • Food containing chocolate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), red wine and caffeine
  • Getting too much or not enough sleep
  • Fasting or skipping meals
  • Changes in the weather or barometric pressure
  • Stress or intense emotions
  • Strong odors or cigarette smoke
  • Bright lights or reflected sunlight

Detection and Diagnosis

  • MRI and CT Scan: rule out tumors or bleeding in the brain
  • Lumbar puncture: performed another condition such as bleeding in the brain or meningitis is suspected
  • Thyroid hormone tests: determines if improper thyroid functioning is causing the headaches
  • Sedimentation rate: determines whether another condition is causing inflammation
  • Prolactin level testing:  determines whether there is a problem with the pituitary gland that could be causing headaches

Treatment Options

  • Abortive headache medications (aspirin or ibuprofen, triptans (serotonin receptor agonists), ergotamine derivatives, midrin) are used to stop a migraine attack
  • Prophylactic headache medications (beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, antidepressants, anticonvulsants) are used to prevent migraine attacks
  • Complementary therapies (accupuncture, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, feverfew herb) help reduce symptoms and frequency of headaches

Common Facts

  • Sinus headaches are overdiagnosed; migraines are underdiagnosed.
  • Headache pills for sinus headaches can make migraines worse.
  • No evidence that chronic, ongoing sinus infections are linked to recurring headaches; such headaches probably are migraines