Migraines affect about 15% of the population. Migraines are divided into two categories: classic migraines and common migraines. Migraine headaches that begin with aura are known as classic migraines, and migraine headaches without an aura are known as common migraines.
The word migraine, derived from the Greek hemikrania, which means “half of the head,” refers to a throbbing pain in one side of the head that’s often accompanied by a stiff and tender neck, extreme sensitivity to light and noise, difficulty concentrating and nausea.
Despite the name’s origin, the pain may also travel throughout the entire head at times. The symptoms can last as little as four hours or as long as three days, and are often followed by a postdrome (aftereffect) phase during which patients feel exhausted and mentally inept.
Classic migraines also involve what health-care practitioners call an aura, which is a pre-migraine period lasting between 15 and 60 minutes that involves zigzag lines or shimmering stars in the field of vision. Some patients with the condition also report having blind spots and tunnel vision, and in rare instances report speech disturbances, confusion and odd sensations such as tingling, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs. Within an hour, the symptoms associated with the aura usually subside and the migraine headache pain develops.
All types of migraine headaches affect women more than men, by a ratio of about three to one. Genetics also plays a role, and the American Council for Headache Education reports that about 90% of people who get migraines have a family history of the condition.
Approximately 20% of people who have migraines will experience auras. Why some people get them and others don’t is still largely a mystery. In fact, researchers don’t even understand the exact cause of migraines in general. Currently, they’re focusing on the relationship between migraines and blood flow in the brain, electrical imbalances in cells, structural changes, and hormonal changes in the central nervous system in the hopes of uncovering the mechanism that causes the condition.
They already know, however, that a variety of things are correlated with migraines, including emotional stress, intense physical exertion, changes in the weather, environmental pollutants, certain medications, changes in sleep patterns and foods such as dairy products, red wine and chocolate.
Research also shows that people who get migraines, both with and without auras, have less frequent and less intense headaches after receiving proper care. If you get migraines with aura, your healthcare practitioner will investigate their nature by taking a detailed history of your condition and possibly performing a physical and neurological examination to rule out any organic causes, such as tumors. Following this, adequate care can begin.