Migraine symptoms

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When are migraine symptoms more than a headache?

We know all migraine attacks can be pretty awful. If you are living with migraine, you’ll be all too aware of how painful and debilitating it can be. You’ll also know that migraine is not just a headache.

Hear how other people with migraine experience their symptoms and what it's like to live with migraine symptoms.

Migraine symptoms

A throbbing headache, sensitivity to light and noise, feeling sick (nausea), being sick (vomiting) and lack of energy (lethargy) are the most common migraine symptoms.2 Other symptoms of migraine can include:1,3

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Disruption in balance and/or dizziness
  • Feeling very hot or very cold
  • Poor concentration
  • Sensitivity to smells
  • Stiffness of the neck and shoulders
  • Sweating
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue

It is worth noting that there are also symptoms that are specific to different migraine types. It is important to understand your symptoms because it is essential for getting the right diagnosis and treatment.2

Understanding migraine symptoms and causes also enables you to explain the condition to friends, family and/or colleagues. This is really important if you feel you are missing out on specific occasions, or unable to fulfil social or work commitments due to migraine.

Stages of a migraine

Migraine tends to develop in early adulthood4 and can be particularly unsettling or scary when the symptoms initially begin. Knowing what is happening and what to expect during an attack may help manage this fear.

Migraine attacks can come in four key stages, though you may not experience every one:1,2

1: The warning

The warning (otherwise known as the ‘prodrome’ stage) sees a person living with migraine experiencing physiological changes, such as shifts in appetite, mood and energy. This usually occurs for a few hours to a few days before an attack

2: The aura stage

In the aura stage, some may experience neurological symptoms, such as flashes of light and/or blind spots. Not all types of migraine feature an aura and migraine aura symptoms may not be present for everyone

3: The main attack stage

The migraine headache or main attack stage brings a painful throbbing headache, typically on one side of the head. This is usually accompanied by other migraine symptoms, such as nausea and/or light and sound sensitivity

4: The recovery stage

The recovery or ‘postdrome’ stage can last a few hours or several days after the main attack has ended. Symptoms are similar or mirror migraine symptoms felt in the first stage of the migraine attack

Migraine aura symptoms

As mentioned, some may experience an aura stage when they have a migraine. It may sound like a strange, mystical event, but ‘aura’ is simply a term used to describe a range of temporary warning symptoms that occur before a migraine.1 People who experience them often describe the migraine aura symptoms as:1

  • Visual disturbances – for example seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns or blind spots
  • Numbness or a tingling sensation much like pins and needles – this typically starts in one hand and moves up the arm before affecting the face
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Loss of consciousness – although this is rare
  • Impaired hearing or hearing loss
  • Pain on touch
  • Hearing and odor hallucinations
  • Neck stiffness

Migraine aura symptoms usually last anywhere between five minutes to an hour. While often a warning sign of an imminent migraine attack, they can lead to a mild migraine or no headache at all.1

Get help for your migraine symptoms

It is important to get a diagnosis for migraine and therefore, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about your migraine symptoms. If you have one or more of the following symptoms, it may be a sign of a more serious condition. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience:

  • Sudden onset and very violent headache that you have never experienced before
  • Headache with fever, neck stiffness, confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness or numbness
  • Inability or difficulty speaking
  • Paralysis or weakness in one or both arms and/or one side of the face

Even if you have had recurrent headaches in the past, contact your doctor or emergency room if your headache pattern changes or the seizures suddenly feel different.


  1. NHS Choices. Migraine symptoms. www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/Pages/symptoms.aspx [Last accessed: June 2021]
  2. The Migraine Trust. Symptoms and stages. https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/symptoms-and-stages/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  3. The Migraine Association of Ireland. Migraines without aura. https://migraine.ie/what-is-a-migraine/#types-of-migraine [Last accessed: June 2021]
  4. NHS Choices. Migraine. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Migraine/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Last accessed: June 2021]
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