Migraine Fundamentals

Migraine Fundamentals

Calling a migraine a bad headache is like calling a tsunami a big wave.

A big wave in the surf may wipe out a few surfers, but a tsunami can travel right up the beach, down the street and inland for miles destroying everything and everyone in its path.

The difference between a tsunami and a typical wave is the same difference between a migraine and a headache. One is very common, not serious and easily treated. The other is devastating and destructive.

But what do we really know about migraines? What happens when a migraine hits? More importantly, why is it happening to you?

What are migraine attacks?

Migraines are often described as “a common primary headache disorder”.(1) For those without a MD or DR next to their name that doesn’t mean much. A more detailed explanation would help.

“Disorder” can be defined  in a medical context as “a physical or psychical (mental) malfunction”.

Put simply… migraines are a brain malfunction

For many people migraine is more than just a painful headache. A really painful headache.

Common migraine symptoms include(2):

  • disturbed vision
  • light sensitivity
  • sensitivity to smell
  • sensitivity to sound
  • nausea and vomiting

As you can imagine, the first experience of a migraine attack can be very frightening. You may need to lie still for several hours in a dark room with no noise, sound or movement and try to fall asleep. That is a common migraine treatment.

The symptoms of migraines can vary from person to person and you may even have different symptoms during different attacks. Individual attacks can differ in length, frequency and severity. Some people for instance only experience nausea which is common in children. Others may only experience the aura without any head pain.

Migraines can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, in more severe cases, they can last longer.

How common is migraine?

It’s more common than you think. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks migraine and headache as one of the most common health conditions worldwide. It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people will experience migraine at some point in their life. Which is equivalent to around 1 billion people.(3)

Migraine is more common in women, with approximately 18% of women and 6% of men experiencing migraine. (4) Why more women than men? It is thought that more women suffer migraine due to hormonal factors. It is common for women to experience a menstrual migraine each month which is not a risk factor for men.

How serious is migraine?

In many cases migraine is episodic and does not occur frequently in patients. On the otherhand they can be disabling and debilitating. In some cases, depending on the frequency and severity of the attacks, the migraine disorder can affect a person’s job, relationships and quality of life.

WHO ranks migraines in the top 10 among all diseases worldwide causing disability. They also rate a severe migraine attack as among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis.(5)

Just over half of those with migraine experience one or more attacks per month, and 13% claim one or more per week.(6)

Migraine peaks between the ages of 35 and 45 in both males and females and declines thereafter. In many instances, this can be due to failure to diagnose and/or poor management of the condition, both of which are common.

Migraine can be complicated by medication overuse which can lead to more frequent attacks and further deterioration until the migraines eventually fade away by themselves.

Most people who suffer migraine, haven’t been diagnosed

Cephalalgia, a peer-reviewed medical journal from the International Headache Society (the leading global headache body), quote at least 50% of patients are undiagnosed or undertreated for migraine.(7)

That’s worth repeating.

50% of migraine patients are underdiagnosed or undertreated.

This underscores the effort required by all of us to help ourselves and others by getting the right information and seeing a doctor if in doubt.

Curious as to what Cephalalgia means? It’s a medical term for pain in the region of the head or neck.

Why do I have migraine?

Why do you have migraine happen to you and not other people? Surprisingly, no one has figured out exactly what causes migraines and what happens during them. Nor has a universal cure for migraine been developed.

Previously scientists believed migraine were linked to the dilation and constriction of the blood vessels in the head. But most medical scientists now believe migraine is due to a combination of genetic and enviromental factors… So you can thank your parents. (8)

Read more about the causes and triggers of migraine here.

Some feel good facts

If you have migraine and you’re thinking this is all bad, don’t be put down. Take some comfort out of the following:

  • The fact that you’re here reading this puts you way ahead of the majority of people suffering from migraine. Many don’t even realize they are suffering from migraine attacks, let alone educating themselves with referenced articles or learning how to manage them.
  • Research and technology today is better than it was five or even two years ago. The availability and access of information to research and studies means that there has never been a better collaboration, access to scientific findings, DNA research and the promise of a solution, even a potential cure.
  • Focus on what you can control. You may not be able to control the fact that you experience migraine, but you can control what you know about migraine, your triggers and its impact on your life.
  • Be proactive in your management. If you don’t manage your migraine, they will manage you. It is possible to control your migraine. It takes time, learning, patience and a little discipline.

Getting the right information, equipping yourself with the right tools and surrounding yourself with supportive and helpful people (including a great doctor) is vital.

Stay positive and put a smile on your face for your own health. (9) There is great hope for a brighter future.

Article References
  1. World Health Organisation & Lifting the Burden. “ATLAS of Headache Disorders And Resources in the World 2011”. Report, 2011.
  2. International Headache Society “ICHD – II:Diagnostic criteria for Migraine”
  3. Steiner TJ et al.  ‘Migraine: the seventh disabler’.  The Journal of Headache and Pain 2013, 14:1.
  4. Who And How Many? Migraine Statistics. http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/migraine-statistics.html
  5. Shapiro, RE. Goadsby, PJ. “The Long Drought: The Dearth Of Public Funding For Headache Research”. Cephalalgia, Sept 2007.
  6. Steiner et al. “The Prevalence And Disability Burden Of Adult Migraine In England And Their Relationships To Age, Gender And Ethnicity”. Cephalalgia, Sept 2003.
  7. Pavone E. et.al. “Patterns Of Triptans Use: A Study Based On The Records Of A Community Pharmaceutical Department”. Cephalalgia, Sept 2007.
  8. Dodick DW, Gargus JJ. “Why Migraines Strike”. Scientific American, Aug 2008.
  9. Professor James Lance. “Migraine and Other Headaches”. 1999.
  10. World Health Organization. “The Global Burden Of Disease: 2004 update”. WHO Report 2008.

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About The Author

Carl Cincinnato

Carl stopped taking his health for granted at an early age due to migraine. He has had migraine for 26 years. Over this time health has become central throughout his life and work. Today, he works with charities, foundations, and organizations to help lift the global burden of migraine including Headache Australia, the Brain Foundation, the Coalition of Headache and Migraine Patients, and the European Migraine and Headache Alliance. He is a member of the International Headache Society, he acts on several advisory boards and he also is the author of MigrainePal and co-host for the Migraine World Summit. Carl is a public and passionate patient advocate for migraine. He has spoken nationally and internationally about migraine and the need to increase research funding, reduce stigma, increase patient support and education. He has been featured in national TV, print and radio stations.


  1. Sarah Cummings

    I couldn’t imagine how hard it is to have a migraine. ‘Cause a simple headache causes a lot of pain. 😦 Thanks for the info! 🙂


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