Overview of the 4 Phases of a Migraine Attack

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Woman having headache

If you learn to recognize the phases of a migraine, you may be able to treat the symptoms early on, limiting the duration and/or intensity of these painful and disruptive episodes.

More specifically, early treatment of a migraine may involve taking migraine medication immediately, drinking a caffeinated drink, or resting—the ultimate goal being to stop the progression of your migraine before it becomes severe and disabling.

The Four Phases of a Migraine

A classic migraine has four distinct phases: the mood swings and food cravings of the prodrome, the visual distortions of the aura, the pain and nausea of a headache, and the fatigue of the postdrome.

You may not experience every phase each time you have a migraine. In fact, each migraine episode can be different. Research has shown that people who recognize the first phase of a migraine were able to predict the onset of a migraine as much as 72 to 93 percent of the time. By recognizing the pattern your body follows prior to the onset of a migraine, you may be able to prevent or avoid them completely.

Phase One: Prodrome

Approximately 30 to 40 percent of people with migraines experience the prodrome phase. Symptoms tend to occur 24 to 48 hours before the actual onset of headache pain. Prodrome symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequent yawning
  • Fluid retention
  • Increased urination
  • Muscle stiffness, especially in the neck, back, and face
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Food cravings
  • Depression or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Neck stiffness
  • Nausea
  • Feeling cold

Phase Two: Aura

Approximately 15 to 20 percent of people with migraines experience an aura, or visual distortions, preceding the headache. You may only experience the aura phase, which is a phenomenon called a “silent migraine.” The aura phase usually begins minutes or hours before the onset of headache pain, but it can start after the head pain begins or continue into the headache phase.

Visual symptoms during aura may include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Appearance of floaters (tiny specks that float before the eyes)
  • Flashes of light or color, or blurry vision
  • A blind spot or even complete blindness in one eye

Additional symptoms of the aura phase can include:

  • Numbness or tingling of the hands, feet, and/or face (particularly around the mouth)
  • Stiff neck
  • Weakness
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Double vision
  • Difficulty talking
  • Slow thinking or confusion
  • Problems with concentration
  • Changes in mood and activity level

Because some of these symptoms can also occur with other conditions, such as a detached retina or stroke, people suffering any of these symptoms for the first time should check with their healthcare provider to ensure their symptoms are the result of a migraine episode and not something more serious or life-threatening.

Phase Three: Headache

This is the phase most commonly associated with migraines, likely because it is generally the most disruptive of the phases. The headache of a migraine is a one-sided, throbbing, or pounding pain that is moderate to severe in intensity and lasts between 4 to 72 hours. Headaches that last longer than 72 hours are called “status migrainosus,” and require immediate medical attention.

To avoid increasing the severity of headache, people who have reached this phase usually stop all activity and lie down in a quiet, darkened room. In addition to pulsing head pain, the headache phase is normally associated with a number of other disagreeable symptoms, including:

  • Extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia) and smell
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased pain with physical activity (such as walking or going up or down stairs)

Phase Four: Postdrome

Approximately 68 percent of people with migraines continue to notice a number of symptoms even after their headache subsides. These remaining symptoms may continue for several hours or even days, although the average duration is about a day. Symptoms of the postdrome phase may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea, photophobia, and phonophobia

A Word from Tips For Healthy Living

In order to be proactive about your migraine health, consider keeping a journal to record symptoms you experience during a typical migraine attack. Research suggests a journal can be beneficial in helping you better understand your migraines so that you can better predict the onset of one. With this preparation, you may be able to stave off some migraines completely, or at least, lessen the symptoms of one.

Of course, if your migraines are debilitating and/or occurring weekly or more often, be sure to talk with your doctor about a preventive migraine medication.

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