Overview & Facts

Migraine wave

Calling a migraine a bad headache can be likened to calling a tsunami a big wave.

A big wave in the surf may wipeout 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 migraines

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 migraines are basically a painful headache. A really, really painful headache. If you’ve got a headache and its bad, but you’re not sure if it’s a migraine, try using a 0-10 pain scale.

That’s where you rank where your pain is on a scale of 0 to 10. If you’re at “0” than means no pain, “5” equals moderate pain and“10” is when you’re in absolutely excruciating pain. If you’re at 8 or higher, and you experience some of the below symptoms, then you may be in migraine territory.

Common migraine symptoms include2:

  • 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 are migraines?

More than you think. A conservative figure from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2004 quoted 324 million people suffered from migraine3. Although that figure is likely to have increased significantly in the last 10 years due to world population growth,  it is still remains more than the entire population of the United States. WHO also put migraines amongst the 3 most common health conditions worldwide, alongside anemia and hearing loss.

They are more common in women, with approximately 18% of women and 6% of men experiencing migraine4. Why more women than men you ask? It is thought that more women suffer migraine due to hormonal factors. It is common for woman to experience a menstrual migraine each month which is not a risk factor for men.

How serious are migraines?

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.

The WHO ranks migraines in the top 20 among all diseases world- wide causing disability. They also rate a severe migraine attack as among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis5.

Just over half of those with migraine or ‘migraineurs’ experience one or more attacks per month, and 13% claim one or more per week6.

Migraines 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.

Migraines 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 migraines, don’t know they have them

Cephalalgia, a medical publication from the International Headache Society (the leading global headache body), quote at least 50% of patients are undiagnosed or undertreated for migraines7.

That’s worth repeating.
50% of migraineurs are under diagnosed or undertreated.

It speaks to 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? No it is not a romantic Italian word, it’s a medical term for pain in the region of the head or neck.

Why do migraines happen to me?

Why do migraines 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 migraines been developed.

Previously scientists believed migraines were linked to the dilation and constriction of the blood vessels in the head. But most medical scientists now believe migraines are due to a genetic cause… So you can thank your parents8.

Some feel good facts

If you’re a migraine sufferer and your reading this thinking it seems all doom and gloom don’t be put down by the facts. 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 migraines. Many don’t even realize they are suffering from migraines, 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 migraines, but you can control what you know about migraines, your triggers and its impact on your life.
  • Be proactive in your management. If you don’t manage your migraines, they will manage you. It is possible to control your migraines. It takes time, 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.

Keep your chin up and put a smile on your face for your own health9. There is much to look forward to.


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 Photography by Toyokazu @ Flickr


  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. World Health Organization. “The Global Burden Of Disease: 2004 update”. WHO Report 2008.
  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.