woman with headache, holding temples

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.

Is there any

There are two ways to approach the
treatment of migraine headache with drugs: prevent the attacks, or relieve the
symptoms during the attacks. Many people with migraine use both approaches by
taking medications originally developed for epilepsy and depression to prevent
future attacks, and treating attacks when they happen with drugs called triptans
that relieve pain and restore function. Hormone therapy may help some women
whose migraines seem to be linked to their menstrual cycle. Stress management
strategies, such as exercise, relaxation, biofeedback, and other therapies
designed to help limit discomfort, may also reduce the occurrence and severity
of migraine attacks.

What is the

Taking a combination of drugs to prevent
and treat migraine attacks when they happen helps most people with migraine to
limit the disabling effects of these headaches. Women whose migraine attacks
occur in association with their menstrual cycle are likely to have fewer attacks
and milder symptoms after menopause.

What research is being

Researchers believe that migraine is the
result of fundamental neurological abnormalities caused by genetic mutations at
work in the brain. Investigations of the more rare, familial subtypes of
migraine are yielding information about specific genes and what they do, or
don’t do, to cause the pain of migraine headache. Understanding the cascade of
biological events that happen in the brain to cause a migraine, and the
mechanisms that underlie these events, will give researchers opportunities to
develop and test drugs that could prevent or interrupt a migraine attack.

Select this link to view a list of studies currently seeking


American Council for Headache Education
19 Mantua
Mt. Royal, NJ   08061
[email protected]
Tel: 856-423-0258
800-255-ACHE (255-2243)
Fax: 856-423-0082
National Headache Foundation
820 N. Orleans
Chicago, IL   60610-3132
[email protected]
773-388-6399 888-NHF-5552 (643-5552)

Related NINDS Publications and

Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes
of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

NINDS health-related material is provided for information
purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official
position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any
other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient
should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that
patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.