Glossary Of Migraine Terms

Abortive treatment – This refers to treatments used abort or stop a migraine attack.

Acetaminophen – Also known as Paracetamol depending on the country.  Acetaminophen is a pain reliever and fever reducer. The exact mechanism of action is not known. It is one of the most widely available painkillers in the world but there is a lack of strong evidence for it’s effectiveness with migraine. Find out more here.

Acute – An acute migraine treatment refers to a treatment that helps relieve a migraine once the attack has begun. These treatments generally do not affect the frequency of migraines themselves, but are focused on relieving the current migraine symptoms. Other types of treatments may focus on prevention such as prophylactic treatment (see prophylactic treatments).

Analgesics – This medical term describes a type of medicine that is used to relieve pain, also known as painkillers.

Anticonvulsants – These are anti-seizure or anti-epilepsy medications. Their mode of action in migraine is not clear. They are thought to affect neurotransmitters (see neurotransmitters) and may also block certain electrical signals in brain cells and nerves.

Antidepressants – These are treatments used to improve depression. They can alter your levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood which is thought to be involved in the genesis of migraine pain. Antidepressants may be used as a migraine preventative in those who have frequent migraines and depression.

Aura – this is a term used to describe the visual disturbances that can occur during migraines. These can include dots, colored spots, sparkles, stars, flashing lights, tunnel vision, zigzag lines, blind spots and even temporary blindness. Read more about migraine aura here.

Antiemetics – These are anti-nausea or anti-sickness medications.

Basilar type migraine – this is a migraine with aura that, according to the IHS, has symptoms which clearly originate from the brainstem, but no motor weakness. In these migraines aura symptoms have at least 2 of the following: difficulty articulating speech; vertigo/ dizziness; ringing or buzzing in the ears; hearing impairment; double vision; the loss of full control of bodily movements; reduced level of awareness and alertness; an abnormal sensation, typically tingling or pricking (‘pins and needles’). Learn more about basilar type migraine here.

Beta-blockers – are a class of drugs which block the effects of beta-adrenergic substances produced by the body like adrenaline. It is not known exactly how beta blockers help prevent migraine headaches. It is thought that by decreasing the production of these substances, they affect serotonin and/or the dilation or widening of arteries.  The most common beta-blocker for migraine is propranolol.

Biofeedback – A technique that teaches people how to control certain body functions like blood pressure, heart rate and spasms in the arteries supplying the brain with the help of a sensory device. Once the skills are learned they can be practiced anywhere.

Brainstem – The brainstem is the area of the brain responsible for processing pain information. It has been implicated in migraine attacks which are thought to occur once the trigeminal nerve (see Trigeminal nerve) triggers the release of chemicals which cause the dilation of blood vessels on the brain. Pain from migraine can be felt anywhere around the head or neck.

Bruxism – This occurs when an individual clenches or grinds their teeth. It can occur during sleep or subconsciously throughout the day. Causes include stress, anxiety or dental malocclusion. The strain of muscles over time can lead to headaches.

Comorbidity – In a medical context, comorbid conditions in a patient refers to two or more medical conditions in the same patient. For example, many people with migraine often experience depression. Migraines have been shown to increase individuals’ risk to depression. Therefore the prevalence of comorbid migraine and depression is higher than other conditions.

Classic migraine – this is an unofficial term used to describe a migraine with aura. It is may be referred to as classic migraine due to the telltale or classic symptoms which are expressed in the migraine aura.

CGRP – (Calcitonin gene-related peptide). These are known to be closely involved in a migraine attack. During a migraine attack it has been shown that CGRPs are released and bind to receptors in the trigeminal nerve which lead to pain. CGRP treatments are currently being developed as a new generation of migraine treatment designed specifically for migraine with strong results in Phase 2 clinical trials. Read more about upcoming CGRP treatments here.

Chronic Migraine – this classification occurs when an individual experiences migraine for 15 days or more per month for over 3 months in the absence of medication overuse.

Common migraine – this is a nonmedical name for migraine without aura. See migraine without aura for more.

CT scan – CT stands for computerized axial tomography. It combines a series of x-rays of the brain to compose a single picture. This enables the physician to view the brain without having to actually get inside. CT scans are primarily used to rule out tumors or bleeding. It may be performed with or without dye. CT scans are not the same as MRIs. See MRI.

Efficacy – This term is often used in a medical context to describe the effectiveness or efficacy of a migraine treatment. Similar to ‘effectiveness’, ‘power’ or the ability to deliver the desired result.

Ergotamine Compounds – also known as Ergot Alkaloids. Ergots constrict blood vessels like other medications however they tend to cause more constriction in the heart and other parts of the body. Side effects are reported to be more common. As a result these treatments are rarely prescribed as a first option for migraine. Learn more here.

Familial hemiplegic migraine –  (FHM) This is a migraine with aura that includes motor weakness. ‘Hemiplegic’ relates to the symptoms of motor weakness which is where your muscles are temporarily weakened or paralyzed. Symptoms can resemble a stroke and may progress until one side of body feels paralyzed for a few hours. ‘Familial’ refers to the fact that a 1st or 2nd-degree family relative is also diagnosed with migraine aura including motor weakness. Learn more about different types of migraines here.

Greater Occipital Nerve Block – If an individual consistently experiences pain the back of the head in the occipital region (lower back of the head) a nerve block may be used as treatment. This involves an injection of local anesthetic to the affected area. If effective, these can deliver significant improvements. The nerve block is a straightforward procedure performed at the doctor’s office.

Headache specialist – These are doctors who specialize in headache or migraine disorders. All their patients tend to be headache patients and the specialists are often at the forefront of industry knowledge, research, conferences, and qualifications when it comes to treating headache disorders. Headache specialists are in short supply. There is less than 1 headache specialist for every 50,000 migraine patients in the US.

International Classification of Headache Disorders – (ICHD) This is a detailed classification of headache disorders published by the International Headache Society (IHS). It is considered the official classification of headache disorders by the World Health Organisation.

International Headache Society – (IHS) The International Headache Society is the governing authority for an internationally recognized classification and diagnosis of migraine headaches. This classification is referred to as the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD). See ICHD for more information.

Infarctions – Infarctions are the death of an organ or tissue caused by an obstruction of the blood supply. Aura’s are thought to be a symptom of restricted blood supply to areas in the brain affecting visual processing.  In severe cases symptoms may persist which could indicate an infarction. Imaging scans and tests are required for confirmation.

Medication Overuse Headaches – (MOH) refers to the overuse of acute medications to treat pain symptoms. When overuse occurs the body develops a dependence on the medication to feel normal. If the medication is stopped, withdrawal symptoms occur such as a headache or migraine for the patient.

Menstrual migraine – These are migraines which occur in women only around the menstrual cycle. Migraines do not occur outside this time frame. Learn more about hormone related migraines here.

Menstrually related migraine – This occurs in women where the migraines are clearly related to the menstrual cycle, but they also occur at other times during the cycle which suggests the involvement of other triggers. Learn more about hormone related migraines here.

Migraine – migraines are a common primary headache disorder characterized by a moderate to severe headache and a range of disabling sensory and/or visual symptoms (see primary disorder). Migraines sit on a spectrum of severity. For some, attacks are mistaken for headaches whilst others are left paralyzed with severe and disabling symptoms. No two migraine patients are exactly alike. Migraines are considered to be a complex and multifactorial neurological disease. See dangerous migraine myths.

Migraine Diary – This is any kind of journal or record that keeps track of an individual’s migraine condition. Migraine diaries are often found to be helpful in discovering new triggers, tracking your progress, evaluating new treatments and informing your doctor.

Migraine with aura – These are migraine attacks which are characterized by temporary aura symptoms prior to the onset of the migraine headache. Many migraine patients assume all aura symptoms are visual when this is not the case. Other aura symptoms can affect the senses such as touch, sound, and taste. They can affect speech, cognition or language skills. Aura’s can also affect your coordination and motor control. Learn more about migraine aura’s here.

Migraine without aura – Often called the ‘common migraine’ these are the most common type of migraine.

MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This is a type of scan that is commonly used for migraine patients to eliminate other conditions, infections in the brain that may be causing to migraines. Typically it involves lying down on a bench that slides into a large magnetic machine that takes detailed images of the brain, layer by layer, for medical inspection.

Narcotic – These types of medications are commonly referred to as Opioids. See Opioids for definition.

Neurologist – A neurologist specializes in treating diseases of the nervous system which includes the spinal cord and the brain. Conditions a neurologist will commonly be consulted for include: multiple sclerosis (MS); seizures or epilepsy; nervous system infections including meningitis, encephalitis or brain abscesses; neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimers; spinal cord disorders including autoimmune and inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis; headaches, such as cluster headaches, migraines and other headaches of unknown origin. Neurologists are often the first type of specialist a migraine patient may be referred to, however, they are not migraine or headache specialists.

Neurotransmitters – These are brain and nervous system chemicals responsible for transmitting signals from one cell to another. They are thought of as the brain’s messengers.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – Commonly abbreviated as NSAIDs, the drugs help reduce inflammation by inhibiting production of certain chemicals in the body. Ibuprofen is a common NSAID.

Retinal migraine – these are repeated attacks of visual disturbance in one eye, including light flashes, sparkles, partial loss of vision, blind spots or blindness related to migraine headache. Find out more here.

Remission – in reference to migraines this refers to a sustained recovery and control over migraine frequency and/or intensity. For some it may involve the complete elimination of migraine attacks and symptoms.

Occipital nerve – These are nerves which travel from the base of the neck from the top of spinal cord through to the scalp.

Ocular migraine – Also known as Optical migraine or Opthalmic migraine. This is term which may be used to describe your migraine by doctors or individuals but it is not an official classification recognized by the International Headache Society. Often these are terms used by individuals or doctors who are not aware of the ICHD classifications. These terms are essentially translated to “eye or eye-related migraines” which isn’t a particularly helpful description.

Opioids – These are a class of narcotic analgesics or painkillers which are chemically related to morphine. Opioids are strong painkillers which may be employed after other options have failed. Due to its addictive nature and potential complications with long-term use these types of medications are not recommended for regular use. Tolerance, addiction, and strong side effects can occur with these treatments. Many people may not realize that codeine is an opioid (narcotic) and from the same drug family as morphine.

Optical migraine – also known as Ocular migraines. See Ocular migraine.

Opthalmic migraine – see Ocular migraine.

Paracetamol – see Acetaminophen.

Placebo – Placebos are commonly used in thorough clinical trials to establish the true efficacy of a migraine treatment. Placebos are sham treatments, sugar pills or similar which contain no active ingredient. Clinical trial participants often do not know whether they are taking the placebo or real treatment. This helps provide more accurate results from clinical testing and is common practice in high-quality trials.

Post Traumatic Headache – When a migraine occurs after head trauma it is often referred to as a post-traumatic migraine.  Post-traumatic migraine (PTM) is a complication of a concussion that is not well understood. Learn more about concussion or whiplash which can lead to PTM here.

Postdrome – Refers the to the final stage of a migraine attack, the resolution and recovery. Some consider these separate phases. Some migraine patients may feel drained or elated for up to 24 hours after an attack. Learn more about the stages of a migraine attack here.

Preventatives – This a term used to describe treatments which help prevent migraine attacks. See Prophylactic treatments for more detail.

Primary disorder – Migraines are often referred to as a common primary disorder. This means that the migraine is self-originating and is not a symptom of another condition such as a brain tumor or infection. Learn more about the basics of migraine here. 

Prodrome – this is the first stage of a migraine attack. It identified by typical early warning symptoms that may occur days or hours before a migraine. Find out more about Prodrome here.

Prophylactic treatments – these are preventative treatments designed to be taken regularly regardless of whether you’re having a migraine attack or not. The goal of prophylactic treatments is to reduce the frequency of migraines. Many prophylactic treatments are designed to be taken daily and do not cause rebound headaches or medication overuse headaches when taken as instructed. View preventative treatment for migraine here.

Rebound headaches – This is a term used to describe headaches which occur after the withdrawal of medication. Often rebound headaches occur when a dependence on medication has developed over a period of time. Rebound headaches can occur with addictive medications, nonaddictive medications and even with caffeine.

Serotonin – This is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, emotion, and appetite via the nervous system. It is thought that migraine patients may have imperfect serotonin function which results in blood dilation, inflammation, and consequent pain. Many migraine treatments modify serotonin to help prevent and abort migraine attacks.

Sporadic hemiplegic migraine – If no family relative has been diagnosed or identified with FHM (see Familial Hemiplegic Migraine), then you may be classified with Sporadic Hemiplegic migraine. This is the same as FHM, except without the family connection.

Status migrainosus – This is a disabling migraine attack that lasts for more than 72 hours. Sleep and traditional medication may not be effective in these attacks.

TENS device – TENs stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This occurs when a controlled electrical current is used to stimulate nerves in a specific area in an effort to de-sensitize the region. One of the most recognized TENS brands for migraine is the Cefaly device. Read a product review about the Cefaly TENS unit here.

Tension-type headache – This refers to the most common type of headache which affects the general population. It causes generally mild to moderate pain or disability. Tension headaches are characterized by a dull, aching or pressure type pain on both sides of the head.

Thunderclap headache – This refers to a sudden and severe headache. It may take only seconds or minutes to reach peak intensity. Thunderclap headaches have been reported amongst those with migraine. It can be benign but it also may be a symptom of something more serious. The nature of the headache itself doesn’t allow distinction between benign or serious causes so it is essential to seek a medical evaluation if you experience sudden and severe headaches.

Tinnitus – a ringing or buzzing in the ears. This is a common symptom experienced by those with migraine.  Find out more about migraine symptoms here.

TMJ – The temporomandibular joint is located where the jaw connects to the skull at the front of each ear. Dysfunction with your jaw and muscles that control it are referred to as temporomandibular disorders or TMD. TMD can arise from stress or anxiety leading to teeth clenching or grinding. Symptoms may include toothaches, headaches, neck pain, dizziness, earaches, upper shoulder pain or tinnitus.

Transient Ischemic Attacks – TIAs are essentially “mini-strokes” which are dangerous precursors to a full-blown stroke. Symptoms of TIA and migraine with aura can sometimes be confused so it’s important a migraine patient understands the difference. Learn more about TIA and migraine aura symptoms here.

Trigeminal nerve – This is a nerve located on both sides of the head near the front of the ears. The “tri” in trigeminal refers to the 3 divisions of nerve branches which cover areas of the face and head including the eyes, nose and mouth. It is thought that migraines occur in over stimulated or excited brain cells which trigger the trigeminal nerve to release chemicals that cause swelling of blood vessels on the surface of the brain.

Trigeminal neuralgia – This is a chronic nerve disorder that can cause sudden bouts of stabbing or shooting pain in one side of the face. It can evolve into constant daily pain.

Trigger – In the context of migraines, a trigger is something that can contribute to or provoke a migraine attack. These are commonly mistaken as migraine causes, but they are not the same. Migraine causes may be due to a genetic disposition, hormonal changes or a physical trauma to the head or neck. Triggers are more often recurring factors which led to a migraine attack such as dehydration, stress, weather changes or certain foods.

Triptans – Are a non medical term used to describe a class of prescription medicine called Serotonin (5-HT1) agonists. Sumatriptan, Zolmitritpan are two examples. This class of medications help relieve pain by narrowing blood vessels in the head and blocking the transmission of pain in sensory nerves. If one triptan isn’t effective another type of triptan can still deliver results.

Vascular Headaches – are a type of headache where blood vessel dilation or swelling is the major component in the production of pain. As blood vessels expand the tissues become inflamed in the head where normal pulsation of blood through the vessels produces a throbbing pain.

Vestibular migraine – Vestibular migraines are migraine headaches which occur with dizziness, vertigo or imbalance. Vestibular migraine may also be called migrainous vertigo, migraine-associated vertigo or migraine-related vestibulopathy. The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition (ICHD III) recognizes VM as an “episodic syndrome that may be associated with migraine”. It is currently listed in the appendix of the ICHD-III which means that if more evidence emerges it may be listed as an official migraine classification in the future. Learn more about Vestibular Migraine or Migraine with Vertigo here.