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Migraine Causes and Triggers

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Written by health writer Gerda Venter
Medically reviewed by Dr. Daniela Steyn

When most people hear the term migraine, they often think of a severe headache. But headaches are only one symptom of migraines. There are many different types of headaches, so identifying the location and nature of your pain can help determine the cause.

The most common types of headaches are:

Tension Headaches

The pain from tension headaches tends to spread across both sides of the head, often starting at the back and creeping forward. Tension headaches are the most common form of headache. Eyestrain, stress, and hunger are frequent causes of tension headaches.

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches often strike when you are sick or feeling congested. They are caused by swelling in the sinus passages, resulting in pain behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. The pain is often worse when you wake up and when you bend forward.

Cluster Headaches

These headaches are usually excruciating and occur in "clusters," meaning they happen daily (usually at the same time), sometimes up to several times per day for months. They result from dilation in the blood vessels of the brain due to a release of serotonin and histamines. They can be caused by physical exertion, bright lights or even altitude.

What is a migraine

A migraine is a headache that can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually only on one side of the head. Although the formation of a migraine attack is difficult to be explained medically, what is known is that it involves the contraction and expansion of the blood vessels connected to the brain. Migraine pain happens when the blood flow at the back of the brain is reduced, causing an increase of blood flow at the front part of the brain.

The trigeminal nerve in your head runs to your eyes and mouth. It also helps you feel sensations in your face and is a major pathway for pain. Your levels of serotonin may decrease at the start of a migraine and this nerve can release chemicals called neurotransmitters that travel to your brain and cause pain.

In addition to severe head pain, migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can last for hours to days, and the pain can be so severe that it interferes with your daily activities.