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What Happens in Your Body During a Migraine?

Discover the science behind your head pain.

Ever wonder what’s happening inside your body to cause migraine pain and discomfort? While researchers still don’t know exactly what causes a migraine, you can learn the phases of what happens in your body—and how you can fight back. The video below provides a visual analysis of how a migraine impacts your brain and your body before, during, and after an attack.

Phase 1: Onset

At the start of a migraine, an external or internal trigger causes neurons in the brain to fire abnormally. These triggers are vast and varied, and include lack of sleep, increase in stress, dietary choices, strong scents, shift in weather, or hormonal changes during a woman’s menstrual cycle.1

Phase 2: Hypersensitivity

Those abnormally firing neurons cause hyperexcitability in various regions of the brain, leading to symptoms that affect the senses. You may experience nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, or difficulty with motor skills and speech, although symptoms vary for every sufferer. Some sufferers even experience aura—either a visual disturbance that appears as lights or lines, or a temporary loss of vision.2,3 It is important to talk to your doctor if you experience any of the above symptoms, as migraines can become severely debilitating if left untreated.

Phase 3: Attack

Scientists believe that the head pain associated with migraines may begin because of a drop in the body’s levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which causes the nervous system to release other chemicals called neuropeptides.4 Low serotonin levels cause the blood vessels surrounding the brain to dilate, and it’s this expansion that can lead to throbbing in your head, often concentrated on one side.4,5

Phase 4: Aftereffect

Most migraines last between 4 and 72 hours. Yet even once they’re gone, your body is still working to recover.6 For the next day or two, it is normal to experience impaired concentration, fatigue, and even weakness.6 Take it easy and get plenty of rest. Consider scaling back on obligations, exercise, and daily activities until you feel back to your usual self.

Fast Track to Relief

It’s important to address a migraine as soon as you feel it coming on; a delay in treatment can make it more difficult for your head pain to respond. (See why “waiting out” a migraine isn’t the best idea.) Making changes in your lifestyle—such as stress management, exercise, and relaxation practices—may be helpful in reducing the number and severity of migraine attacks.3 These techniques, combined with over-the-counter medications like Excedrin® Migraine, can help provide fast relief.

Show References

Hide References

1. “Migraine | MedlinePlus.” MedlinePlus Trusted Health Information for You, medlineplus.gov/migraine.html. Access date: 3 October 2017.

2. Schwedt, Todd J. “Multisensory Integration in Migraine.” Current Opinion in Neurology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038337/.

3. “Migraine Information Page.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Migraine-Information-Page. Access date: 5 October 2017.

4. Aggarwal, Milan, et al. “Serotonin and CGRP in Migraine.” Annals of Neurosciences, Indian Academy of Neurosciences, Apr. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4117050/.

5. “Migraine Facts.” Migraine Research Foundation, migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/. Access date: 5 October 2017.

6. “Migraine.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 26 Apr. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/dxc-20202434. Access date: 5 October 2017.

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