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Migraines: possible causes, related health conditions, and more

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on February 18, 2020. Written by Caitlin Boyd. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Migraine headaches: they’re not only uncomfortable, but can also be downright debilitating at times—interfering with productivity, affecting one’s psychological well-being, and so on.

Understanding what can cause migraines can be a useful step towards getting relief (and, of course, talking with your healthcare provider and learning what they recommend). Find out more about possible causes of migraines here—plus related health conditions, common questions, and more.

Possible causes of migraines

Environmental changes

Changes in your environment can cause or worsen a migraine. Bright light, loud noises, and extreme heat are especially common triggers. Some people also report that strong smells can worsen their headaches.

Dehydration

Staying hydrated is essential for managing migraine headaches. Dehydration can cause changes in blood flow that may trigger a migraine attack. Alcohol and caffeine can contribute to dehydration, and might also trigger migraines on their own.

Hormone changes

Among women, various changes in hormone levels can contribute to migraines. For example, if you're pregnant or menstruating, you may experience more frequent migraines. Hormonal medications, including birth control pills, may also trigger migraines in some women.

Stress

Stress can trigger migraines or worsen existing symptoms. One reason why? Stress can interfere with your sleep, and fatigue can trigger a migraine.


Measure 3 key hormones that regulate sleep and stress from the convenience of home with the at-home Sleep & Stress Test.


Medications

Some medications may trigger migraines, and others may make your headache worse. Drugs designed to alleviate headaches sometimes cause "rebound headaches." These headaches reappear after your medication wears off and your blood vessels start to dilate. Rebound headaches often get worse over time. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn what medications you can try that won't cause rebound headaches.

Food sensitivities

Some people who experience migraines report that certain foods trigger their symptoms. In some cases, this may be due to how IgG antibodies react to “trigger foods.” Several research studies have shown that elimination diets guided by IgG antibody test results may help reduce the frequency of migraines.


To guide a temporary elimination diet based on IgG antibody reactivity, take the at-home Food Sensitivity Test (checks 96 common foods).


Anxiety and depression

Migraine headaches are especially common among people with anxiety or depression. However, more research is needed to understand the link between these conditions.

Seizure disorders

Researchers have found that people with migraine headaches may be more likely to suffer from seizures. People with seizure disorders also have a higher chance of experiencing migraines. Both conditions may be linked to activity in a specific part of the brain.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a little-understood condition that causes widespread chronic pain. Many people with fibromyalgia suffer from pain in their joints or limbs, but some may also experience debilitating migraines. Additionally, researchers have found that migraines and fibromyalgia frequently co-exist. People with one of these conditions are more likely to have the other, too. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Researchers have identified a strong link between PTSD and migraines. People with PTSD may experience more severe migraine symptoms, and both conditions seem more prevalent in women.

Seeking medical care for migraines

Migraine headaches often aren’t a medical emergency—but if you experience a sudden, severe headache, seek medical advice right away. Your healthcare provider can help determine whether your headache is a sign of a serious health problem.

Migraines are frequently treated with prescription medications. Pain-relievers can reduce your symptoms during an attack. Preventive medications may also reduce the frequency of migraines. In addition, some medications can help make your migraines less severe and reduce feelings of nausea.

Other remedies

Many migraine sufferers find it helpful to meditate. Meditation may help you reduce your stress and prevent some migraine attacks. 

A healthy diet and regular sleep routine can also help prevent migraine headaches. Research has also shown that regular exercise can prevent some migraines, and exercise comes with other benefits, too: it helps reduce stress levels and regulates the sleep cycle.

Common questions about migraines

What is a migraine?

People with migraines often suffer from debilitating headaches plus a number of other symptoms. For example, you may experience sensitivity to light and sound—as well as nausea and vomiting. 

Migraines also tend to recur. Some people may even experience migraines every week, and people with chronic migraines experience symptoms at least 15 days each month.

What are the symptoms of migraine headaches?

Migraine symptoms can include:

  • Throbbing or pulsing pain
  • Pain on one side of the head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Light sensitivity
  • Sensitivity to sound

People who suffer from migraines often experience an aura. An aura is a visual disturbance that typically precedes a migraine. Auras can include flashing lights, halo, or blind spots. Some people also report a tingling sensation in their face, arms, or legs. Others may have trouble speaking during an attack.

How long does a migraine last?

An aura typically appears about an hour before a migraine attack. The attack itself usually lasts for several hours, but some attacks can last for days.

The frequency of attacks can vary. You may have migraines several times a week, or you may have only a few migraines a year.

How can I stop a migraine?

The goal of treatment is to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Your provider may recommend medications, lifestyle changes, dietary supplements, stress management, or therapy.


References

1. Migraine. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.

2. Migraine Headaches. Johns Hopkins Medicine. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.

3. Medication overuse headaches. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.

4. Arroyave Hernández CM, Echavarría Pinto M, Hernández Montiel HL. Food allergy mediated by IgG antibodies associated with migraine in adults. Rev Alerg Mex. 2007;54(5):162-168.

5. Alpay K, Ertas M, Orhan EK, Ustay DK, Lieners C, Baykan B. Diet restriction in migraine, based on IgG against foods: a clinical double-blind, randomised, cross-over trial. Cephalalgia. 2010;30(7):829-837. doi:10.1177/0333102410361404

6. Davies PT, Panayiotopoulos CP. Migraine triggered seizures and epilepsy triggered headache and migraine attacks: a need for re-assessment. J Headache Pain. 2011;12(3):287-288. doi:10.1007/s10194-011-0344-2

7. Peterlin BL, Nijjar SS, Tietjen GE. Post-traumatic stress disorder and migraine: epidemiology, sex differences, and potential mechanisms. Headache. 2011;51(6):860-868. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2011.01907.x

8. Headache. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.

9. Migraine-diagnosis & treatment. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.

10. Chronic Migraine. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed February 18, 2020.