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Migraine Headache Symptoms Explained

My wife suffers from migraine headaches. This article is the result of my search for answers.

This person reported a migraine headache for 6 days. The related confusion and pain is frequently reported.

This person reported a migraine headache for 6 days. The related confusion and pain is frequently reported.

Migraine Answers and the Internet

One of my 21st-century habits is to head to the internet whenever I have a question. How to install a headlamp motor, where to buy parts for my tile saw, where to buy a soap dispenser for a dishwasher, and what to do when a child has a fever—these are all questions I have recently gone online to answer. So when my wife was asking questions about why she experiences certain symptoms when she has migraine headaches, I turned to Google for answers.

My goal was to find substantive information. In this article, I have organized my wife's questions, as well as the answers I found. I hope this information will be helpful to you or someone you know who suffers from migraine headaches.

Multiple Headache Possibilities

It is important for anyone experiencing signs of a migraine to consult a physician. Here is a partial list of disorders and diseases that can cause headaches: atherosclerosis, stroke, aneurysm, head and neck trauma, blood vessel problems, brain tumor, seizures, high blood pressure, encephalitis, meningitis, and many more.

Numbness in Face and Arms

Question: Why did the right side of my face and my arm go numb when I had my first migraine, and why did I not have a headache?

Answer: Numbness in one arm can come along with numbness on either side of the face, but most of the time on the same side. It can be caused by nerves in the brain. The area of the brain which is in command of the functions of the arm might be affected by infections or stroke. Atherosclerosis (thickening of blood vessels) can also cause decreased blood supply and cause such symptoms. When these things are ruled out, it is believed that in women, many times, the migraine is a result of fluctuating hormones. Seventy-five percent of women are patients. Fifteen percent of sufferers in a study under 750 reported numbness in the face.

It is speculated that the numbness may be caused by high activity in the brain followed by lower activity. When the body senses this lower activity, substances that are inflammatory are released to raise the cerebral activity. It is thought that these substances may be responsible for the nerves responding such that the face and arm go numb. This is a theory; no confirming research has been done. Many physicians will order an MRI to rule out more serious (read other) disorders. Symptoms of migraine can be confused with stroke, heart attack, and panic attacks. Additionally, symptoms may be from multiple sclerosis, heart disease, fibromyalgia, or diabetic neuropathy.

If you have this symptom, you must visit a physician right away: hemiplegic migraines, classic migraine if with aura, complex migraine, and atypical familial hemiplegic migraines (as opposed to typical), just to name a few.

Note: Because the consequences of misdiagnosis are so dire, the only way to have any peace of mind is to see a doctor.

For more information, Google "cortical spreading depression." I was able to locate at least ten kinds of migraines.

Pounding in the Head

Question: What causes the terrible pounding in my head?

Answer: The wrong type of vasodilation (dilation of blood vessels) supplying the brain with blood is the best theory for why you get such a pounding headache with a migraine.

The most recent theory about migraine causes is that many factors combine to result in the severe headache. Anxiety and stress are postulated to bring one on. It is speculated that certain foods ingested trigger migraine, also.

There is research that shows a relationship between families and migraines. It is reported that Mayo Clinic has found a genetic link pointing toward migraine.

Toxicity of the body, including the ingestion of toxic compounds, might be a trigger. A myriad of other types of diseases or afflictions could have an influence on the propensity toward migraine. And along the lines of deficiency, magnesium deficiency is thought by some to bring about migraine.

A neurotransmitter of particular importance is serotonin. Drops in the level of this brain chemical are thought to be the reason for the dilatation (widening) of the blood vessels and result in the throbbing headache.

Sensitivity to Light

Question: Why does the migraine get worse in the presence of light?

Answer: This symptom is referred to as photophobia. Blind people with migraine in a recent study did not respond with a worsening state when exposed to light. Therefore, the speculation is that somehow the optic nerve must be involved. Researchers identified a group of brain cells that started to become active electrically when the migraine occurred. These brain cells were injected (planted) with electrodes that measured brain excitation. It was discovered that light was affecting these brain cells and increasing their activity within a very short period of time. It is speculated that this activity is what causes sensitivity to light. After 20-30 minutes after removal of the light source, the headache is reported to be better. For more information, Google "why bright light worsens migraine."

Sensitivity to Noise

Question: Why does noise worsen migraine?

Answer: One postulation is that migraine sufferers have a response to sound that isn't like other peoples'. This abnormal response to sound is what accounts, in theory, for aversion to sound during migraine. So a relationship between the response and migraine has been noted, but the cause is not understood. Ninety -five percent of questioners were asked if they would want to be in a noisy area when having a migraine, and they responded, "No." They said that they preferred being in a quiet area.

Others in medicine are investigating if there exists a problem with the calcium channel. Calcium channels are pathways that, when activated by electricity, send signals out to the brain and/or muscles. Studies have shown up to 85% of hemiplegic migraine sufferers have defects in a specific gene, the CACNA1A, which is associated with calcium channels.

A class of drugs called calcium channel blockers can be prescribed, with the result being calcium ions moving into the cells of the blood vessels and heart. The vessels then relax, easing the migraine and sensitivity to sound. The evidence on all migraines is out to debate.

Calcium channels are dependent on electricity, and this regulates the flow of calcium ions into cells in such channels. These channels are also related to muscle contraction, hormone release, and neurotransmitter release; hence, the body may be accentuating noise due to a defect in transmission.

Sensitivity to Odor

Question: Why am I sensitive to smell during a migraine?

Answer: Twenty percent of migraine sufferers report being sensitive to certain smells. Forty to fifty percent report a change in sensitivity to smell. The issue reported most is that smells worsen the intensity of the migraine. It is also reported that people may be able to sense smells from a greater distance than normal. Osmophobia is the dislike or aversion to smells. In experiments, perfumes or cologne affected 64% of respondents. Perfume on an airplane started my wife's last one. The reasons for this hypersensitivity to smell during migraine has not been studied as much as other things like sound and light. So the answer to this question is still to be satisfactorily given.

Sensitivity to Movement

Question: Why, after the migraine proceeds, do I find that moving after lying down causes the headache to worsen?

Answer: Though movement during migraine attacks has been reported to worsen the headache, researchers have found that exercise can actually help prevent migraine.

Since the major theory about migraine is that initially, blood vessels in the brain constrict and then dilate, it is speculated that movement of the body affects pressure levels at hypersensitive moments, increasing inflammation. This might be an explanation for the pain upon movement during a migraine.

Nausea and Vomiting

Question: Why do I throw up during a migraine?

Answer: My wife does not always throw up. And, despite others' reports, inducing vomiting does not help, nor does the headache go away after throwing up, necessarily. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not.

The sympathetic nervous system of the human body is often activated during migraine. This system controls primitive responses to stress and pain, often referred to as the fight or flight response, and this activation causes many of the symptoms associated with migraine attacks. Increases in this type of activity in the intestine cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Relationship to MSG?

Question: Does MSG cause migraines?

Answer: MSG is reported frequently in the body of research as a "suspected" trigger since many people report migraine after ingesting MSG. As of now, it is only a "suspected trigger" with no explanation for why.

Visual Auras

Question: Why do I sometimes get little dots in front of my eyes?

Answer: Visual aura frequently precedes the migraine attack. Migraines are divided into two major categories: those with aura and those without aura. Visual aura is an electrical wave that moves across the brain's visual cortex. This electrical activity stimulates the visual cortex bringing about flashing lights, dots, etc.

Hope This Helps

And now a final comment. Just to relate what helps my wife deal with migraines, I will tell you, the reader, what she does. However, you MUST see a physician to get either a diagnosis or prescription medication!

My wife, after consultation with her physician(s), finds this a most effective solution for her. If she catches the migraine early enough (has the symptoms elucidated above), she takes Excedrin Migraine and lies down. Most of the time, things get better. If they don't get better within 45 minutes to 1 hour, she takes Lorcet 10/650. This is a pill that is a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone. This is a medication that can be taken ONLY with a doctor's prescription. She draws the blinds to darken the room, and applies a cold compress to her forehead while remaining still.

This almost always does the trick.


Pauline Anderson, Light and Sound Sensitivity in Migraine Explained?, March 19, 2015, Medscape,

Paula Dumas, "Don't Inhale: "Toxic Smells That Are Migraine Triggers," May 12, 2014, MigraineAgain,

Chris Smith, MD, Blurred Vision Then Numbing In Hand That Moves To Face, update April 2017, SteadyHealth,

Migraine and Aura, April 23, 2016, American Migraine Foundation,

Jacquelyn Cafasso, Migraine Symptoms, August 25, 2016, healthline,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 John R Wilsdon


Emma Kisby from Berkshire, UK on September 01, 2013:

This is a very helpful hub about the possible causes of migraines, and a very interesting read. I used to work on a neuro ward and looked after people who had aneurisms and photophobia, among other things.

I suffered from migraines when I was a young teenager and luckily only went on for about three or four years. I put it down to hormones and late nights (I always had one the next day at school when I'd had less sleep). I would see lights and feel sick and the migraine would last hours - not a pleasant experience. So I made sure I had a decent night sleep to limit the migraines and it did make a difference. I do believe I 'grew out' of them.

This is useful for sufferers to know there are ways to understand their migraines and find a way to cope. Very helpful.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on April 09, 2013:

Thank you for sharing your experience with migraines. Your experience sounds much like my wife's. There is a bottle of Excedrin Migraine in the glove box of her car. It is an empowering thing to finally feel that you have some control over such pain. Again, thanks for the detailed comment. My hope is that the comments section of the hub will help folks as much as the info in the hub. Continued good luck!

Billie Kelpin from Newport Beach on April 08, 2013:

How wonderful for you to have searched this out for your wife. I had migraine headaches for about 8 months about 10 years ago and really don't know how people endure this for years. I don't know why the migraines came or why they went away. I do know that in more than 50 years of all kinds of various pain, that pain is THE WORST. I used to think migraines meant a bad headache. I had NO IDEA of the intensity until I got my first one. I, too, read about the process and when I found out about dilation of blood vessels, if I could catch the signs early enough before the onset, I would imagine the vessels in my head like angel hair spaghetti and that helped a tiny bit. Again, if I felt my cheeks numbing up, I would walk down the hall of my school with my shoes pounding the floor. For some reason that helped, again, a TINY bit and ONLY if the full blown migraine hadn't started. When a full blown one had come on, I couldn't move out of the bed, even to lift my head to pick up the phone to call my husband to come home. Cold helped and dark, but the pain would get so bad, I would throw up, barely able to get to the bathroom with the pain pounding in my head. That was the worst! My headaches seemed to last about 24 hours. Finally, a casual acquaintance told me her daughter had had migraines for years and had recently (back then) found Excedrin Migraine to work. When I would feel numbness coming on, I would take 2 extra strength Excedrin migraine and it worked like a miracle - totally preventing a full blown episode. Finally, the headaches disappeared as mysteriously as they came. I feel extremely fortunate that that they're gone. However, I never go ANYWHERE without Excedrin Migraine just in case. Last year they had taken that medication off the shelf, but it's back on again. It's the exact combination of aspirin and acetaminophen and caffein that makes it work! Best Wishes to your wife and my empathy for anyone who experiences this horrible pain.

Slaven Cvijetic from Switzerland, Zurich on May 23, 2012:

very interesting and informative hub! shared interesting and voted up!!

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on January 18, 2012:


Thanks for the recommendation. Every bit counts! Glad you found relief.

Nichole on January 15, 2012:

I have been suffering from migraines my whole life.

Vomiting, can't see straight, pass out sometimes yep! all that. I started taking Goody's Powder it works great!

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on January 14, 2012:

L.L. Woodard

Thanks for the comment, it is helpful. I did read that depression was another trigger for migraine. It does make sense when considering serotonin levels. Have a great day!

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on January 14, 2012:

Thank you for sharing the results of your research into understanding the symptoms of migraine headaches. One of the things doctors explained to me when I was experiencing frequent migraines is that depression can lead to these debilitating headaches; this makes sense when understanding that low serotonin levels are thought to be a cause.