Published on March 22, 2019


How Migraines Work

Nearly one in four U.S. households include someone who experiences migraines.

Even though it is the third most common illness in the world, more than half of those who experience migraines are never diagnosed nor seek medical care for their pain. There is no cure for migraines, but there are steps you can take to treat it so you can maintain a better quality of life and live without pain.


Unlike headaches, most migraines progress through stages and can be extremely disabling. T Newsome, MD, an internal medicine physician with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group, describes migraines as a longer, more intense and recurring form of a headache. “They are most likely to occur in the morning with each stage of symptoms lasting from a few hours to days.”


Migraines operate in a four-part life cycle. Not every person with migraines experiences all four stages for every migraine.

  • Prodrome Stage: This stage occurs a day or two leading up to the migraine. You may notice subtle changes in your appetite, mood or energy level.
  • Aura Stage: If you experience this stage, it will occur between 20 and 60 minutes before the migraine attack. It is characterized by vision loss, seeing shapes and flashes of light, having trouble speaking, weakness or numbness in your body.
  • Attack Stage: At this stage, you are experiencing the most disabling effects of your migraine. “The pain is typically gradual and is usually characterized by a throbbing sensation in your temples or behind your eye or ear, nausea, light sensitivity and blurred vision,” says Dr. Newsome. “It is possible to experience this stage without the presence of headache.” Dr. Newsome recommends treating your migraine as early as possible to shorten the amount of time spent in this stage.
  • Post-drome Stage: Some people feel drained during this stage while others feel elated as their symptoms begin to wane. Symptoms can include weakness, dizziness and sensitivity to light and sound. This can last for up to a day.


Migraines can happen to anyone, but they do occur more frequently in women. In fact, three in four migraine sufferers are women. Dr. Newsome points out that people who experience migraines are more likely to also have had a history of migraines stemming back to their childhood, adolescent or early adulthood years. “Research suggests you are more likely to experience migraines if you have a mental health condition, sleep disorder or if you have other relatives with migraines,” she says. “Migraines can also be triggered by factors such as stress, certain smells, medication overuse, foods, overexertion and bright lights.”


There is no cure for migraines, but they can be managed. “When you see your doctor, they will likely ask you questions about your pain areas, how often you experience headaches, your family history and other symptoms and risk factors. They may request that you take a blood test or get an MRI or CT scan to rule out more serious neurological causes,” Dr. Newsome says.

Your doctor may recommend the following treatments to help you feel better:

  • Over-the-counter painkillers.
  • Prescription drugs to prevent or stop the migraine.
  • Lifestyle changes that help you establish a more consistent and healthy daily routine. Examples include going to bed and eating healthy meals at the same time every day, avoiding common dietary triggers, such as caffeine and alcohol, staying well hydrated and getting enough sleep each night can all help you to combat migraines.
  • Monitoring and controlling your body’s response to stress.

“If you’re having migraine-like symptoms, feeling pain after taking a blow to the head or having intense headaches that disrupt your daily lifestyle, talk to your primary care doctor or seek emergency care immediately to rule out more serious conditions,” Dr. Newsome says.

Sources: U.S. Office of Women’s Health, Migraine Research Foundation, Mayo Clinic, U.S. National Library of Medicine

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