This Is What a Migraine Actually Is, According to a Neurologist

“What occurs during a migraine is controversial and a bit complicated.”

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Migraine is a very common and debilitating condition, affecting nearly 40 million people in the United States, and 1 billion worldwide, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Despite its prevalence, this disabling syndrome still is widely misunderstood.

One reason is that migraine is an “invisible” condition. To outsiders, people who suffer from migraines don’t necessarily look sick, so sympathy tends to be lost. Another reason is that there are many rumors floating around about what migraines actually are—and what they’re not. Learn more about the stigma and myths surrounding migraine.

“As a neurologist having practiced headache medicine now for 40 years, I’m still amazed that only 50 percent of people with migraines are getting diagnosed as having migraine,” says Mark Green, MD, a neurologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.


What Is a Migraine, Exactly?  

Contrary to popular belief, migraines are more than just a bad headache. Headaches are just one symptom of migraines. Migraine is a complex condition that can make a person feel a variety of symptoms physically and mentally, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Pain behind one eye or ear
  • Pain in the temples
  • Seeing spots or flashing lights
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Vomiting

“What occurs during a migraine is a bit controversial and a bit complicated,” says Dr. Green. “There are changes in the brain, particularly the surface of the brain that become inflamed, the blood vessels become dilated, and there are alterations in blood flow.”

Migraine attacks can be very frightening and may result in a person having to lie still for several hours in a dark room—or even feel the need to go to the emergency room. “We’ve come to recognize how debilitating migraines are,” says Dr. Green.


Getting the Right Treatment for Migraine

If you think you are having migraines, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step to finding relief.

Your doctor will likely take your medical history, such as the age at which you started having migraines and if they run in your family. “If both parents have migraines, the risk is 70 to 80 percent that you’ll get a migraine,” says Dr. Green.

Your doctor will also ask about your symptoms and lifestyle habits, such as if you’ve had any visual changes or what your relationship with alcohol or caffeine is like.

“[To treat migraines] we want people to keep a very regular routine,” says Dr. Green. That means getting enough sleep, managing your stress levels, and eating a well-rounded diet. Try these home remedies that may help soothe migraine symptoms, too.

Alongside a healthy lifestyle, your doctor may recommend certain medications to help treat individual migraine attacks, as well as medications to reduce the number of attacks, says Dr. Green. “And these are entirely different medications.”

“It’s an exciting time we’re in now, where new drugs are in development,” says Dr. Green. “It’s important for people to get an accurate diagnosis and find effective treatment that will work for them.”