How Migraines Affect The Brain

How Migraines Affect The Brain

Migraines affect approximately one billion people worldwide or roughly 12% of the population. Anyone who suffers from this debilitating disorder can attest that they are much more than just a bad headache. They typically involve multiple severe symptoms and can last for hours, or in extreme cases days, at a time. Migraines can be debilitating to experience, and depending on frequency and length, can significantly interfere with multiple aspects of an individual’s life.

What Causes Migraines?

While early theories regarding migraine pain pointed to blood flow fluctuations in the brain, scientists now know that while blood flow fluctuations contribute to migraine pain, it doesn’t trigger the actual migraines. Instead, migraines occur when nerve cell activity over-stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for most of the sensations and motor function in our cranium and face. This stimulation triggers the release of a series of neurochemicals such as serotonin, estrogen, and dopamine. The brain also releases calcitonin gene-related peptide, an amino acid peptide associated with pain transmission. These neurotransmitters cause the blood vessels in our brain to contract, which stimulates more chemicals to be released, resulting in inflammation and pain.

Migraines can be triggered by numerous stimuli. Some reported triggers are adversity to foods, weather changes, stress, glaring or flickering lights, strong scents, and fatigue. In addition to the many triggers, there are a variety of migraines someone can experience. Most migraine sufferers experience what’s known as an aura migraine. This is a visual disturbance, such as lines or shapes, that an individual sees either in their direct or peripheral vision.

Other types of migraines are ocular migraines, where the individual loses their vision entirely at the onset of the migraine. Silent migraines are where other symptoms occur yet the most prominent symptom of the migraine, the pain is absent. Hemiplegic migraines are a rare but serious variety where the symptoms are similar to having a stroke. Vestibular migraines cause extreme vertigo and can be absent of pain. Abdominal migraines are as the name suggests, located primarily in the abdomen. These are accompanied by extreme pain in the stomach and sufferers usually experience nausea and vomiting. Women can also have monthly migraines due to the fluctuating levels of estrogen that occur with their menstrual cycle.

Recognizing the Stages of a Migraine

While it’s possible to learn how to identify migraine triggers, getting a migraine isn’t always preventable. We can’t control the weather or always succeed at avoiding stress. That makes recognizing the stages of a migraine vital in order to manage the pain as best we can.

The first stage is the prodrome stage. This stage can occur anywhere from an hour to a few days before the migraine begins. Common symptoms are fatigue, mood changes, increased thirst, sugar cravings, tense muscles in the shoulders or neck, constipation, irritability, or frequent yawning. Paying attention to these changes in our body or mood can help us identify when a potential migraine is coming.

The second stage is the aura stage and is called that whether the individual experiences an actual aura or not. This stage appears gradually and lasts anywhere from twenty to sixty minutes. The most common symptom is the visual disturbances associated with the aura, however, other symptoms can include tingling sensations––often described as pins and needles––in the arms and legs, dizziness, nausea, spotty vision, complete vision loss, weakness in limbs or on one side of the body, speech problems, or ringing in the ears. This is the stage when medication can be administered to have the most potent effect and potentially reduce the pain and other symptoms.

The third stage is the main attack. This is when the physical pain in our head strikes, or in the abdomen in the case of abdominal migraines. Pain can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The type of pain can vary and is often accompanied by other symptoms such as a pulsating or throbbing sensation on one or both sides of the head, blurred vision, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting not related to abdominal migraines, and extreme sensitivity to sound, light, or scents.

While experiencing this stage, it’s often important for the sufferer to lie down in a dark, quiet room and avoid as much movement as possible until this stage is over. This is actually what makes a migraine different from other headaches; how severely they can impact how the individual is able to function while experiencing the pain along with these other symptoms.

Lastly, there is the postdrome or recovery stage, and like every other stage, the length varies for each. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to recover. During this stage, it’s normal for the migraine sufferer to feel drained. It’s recommended to take it easy and rest as much as possible so the body and brain can recover without triggering another migraine.


Even though we understand more about what causes a migraine than ever before, it’s still impossible to prevent migraines from occurring entirely. Instead, we can work to understand how migraines are triggered and what to do if we find ourselves in the early stages of a migraine. Working with a doctor and being able to rest appropriately can help ease the veracity and length of symptoms. If symptoms ever become extreme, it’s recommended to seek immediate medical attention.

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