10 Signs Your Bad Headache Is a Migraine Attack

Sep 01, 2023
10 Signs Your Bad Headache Is a Migraine Attack
One headache is not the same as all other headaches; sometimes the pain is part of a neurological disorder called migraine. Here are 10 signs your bad headache is really a migraine attack.

Migraine isn’t just a bad headache. Pain can be one of its symptoms, but migraine is actually a disorder that features attacks composed of numerous neurological symptoms.

Migraine is also different from the common tension-type headache (TTH) in that a simple over-the-counter pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen doesn’t alleviate the symptoms. Managing symptoms involves a combination of preventive and abortive medications, as well as lifestyle changes.

Migraine is unfortunately common. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, it’s the sixth-most disabling disease worldwide. And 1 in 4 American families has someone living with chronic migraine, meaning 15 or more migraine days each month.

At Primecare Family Practice, our board-certified family practitioners Maryline Ongangi, APRN, FNP-C and Lewis Nyantika, APRN, FNP-C diagnose and treat patients with headache disorders, including migraine, at our Arlington, Texas, office. Because many people don’t know the difference between a bad headache and migraine disease, we’re taking this opportunity to help you understand the signs that your bad headache is really migraine.

All about migraine

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of migraine, but they believe there’s a genetic link since the condition often runs in families. Environmental factors most likely trigger the genetic aspect of the disorder.

Some people living with migraine find that certain things trigger an attack, such as specific foods, tobacco, caffeine or lack of caffeine, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, and changes in barometric pressure, among other things. But others seem to have no triggers they can identify.

A migraine attack contains four distinct phases, though you can have just one, or any combination of the four. In order of occurrence, the phases are:

1. Prodrome

This first phase starts 1-2 days before the pain stage starts and is a signal that an attack is coming. You may experience mood changes and swings, uncontrollable yawning, some mental confusion, and a vague feeling that something is wrong.

2. Aura

Migraine attacks can happen with or without aura, and a person generally experiences only one of these types. 

Those who experience the aura phase may see lightning bolts, stars, or zigzagging lines across their vision (the most common), have overall muscle weakness, or garble their speech. Auras last about 20-30 minutes before the pain phase hits. If you don’t get aura, you go straight from prodrome to the pain phase.

3. Pain

This phase is what most people think of as a migraine attack, even though it’s only one component. The pain may start gradually or hit all at once. Often, it creeps up the back of your neck and settles, throbbing, on one side of your head. It’s considered more severe than TTH pain, and it can last anywhere from 4-72 hours. 

4. Postdrome

You may sigh with relief once the pain starts to recede, but the attack isn’t over. The last phase is called postdrome, and it’s something like a post-adrenaline crash. Most people feel weak, tired, and mentally foggy for a couple more days.

10 signs your bad headache is a migraine attack

Paying attention to the type of pain, how it manifests, and what neurological symptoms come along with it can help you distinguish when your headache is really a migraine attack. Ten signs that indicate migraine include:

  1. Pulsing or throbbing pain on one side of head
  2. Pain that gets worse with movement of any kind
  3. Sensitivity to light, sound, and/or odors
  4. Nausea and vomiting
  5. Constipation
  6. Brain fog (mental confusion)
  7. Excessive yawning before or along with pain
  8. Visual or speech disturbances (aura)
  9. Mood swings
  10. Crushing fatigue

In addition, the pain doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medications. There are many prescription options for symptom relief, as well as a whole new line of migraine-specific anti-CGRP preventives and abortives. Our providers can prescribe these for you, or you can see a headache specialist for further treatment.

When is a bad headache not just a headache? When you experience neurological symptoms along with pain. To learn more, or to schedule a consultation with one of our practitioners, call Primecare Family Practice at 817-873-3710, or book online with us today.