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10 Migraine Headache Symptoms Plus Triggers and Risk Factors

This article will give you 10 signs you're having a migraine to help you determine whether your pain is caused by a headache or a migraine.
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Last Updated on November 13, 2021 by Lori Geurin

Did you know one in four households has a family member who suffers from migraines? Maybe you or someone you love can relate to this. Or perhaps you’ve had some terrible headaches, but weren’t sure if they were truly migraines or not. In this post, we’ll share 10 migraine headache symptoms, migraine triggers, and risk factors.

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What is a Migraine?

Although the migraine condition is not fully understood, we know that it is a “complex condition” which usually includes an extremely painful headache, along with other possible symptoms.

A genetic mutation is associated with migraines; This is why they often run in families. Environmental conditions also seem to play a part. Researchers believe that during a migraine the levels of serotonin fall. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that regulates pain.

My Migraine Experience

Most people start getting migraines between the ages of 10 and 40. I was first diagnosed with them at the age of 21.

It was a busy time in my life because I was studying to become an Elementary Education teacher. I had also recently married David, the love of my life. We were busy settling into our little blue house with our little black dachshund, Cocoa, we adopted from the Humane Society.

The Migraine Aura

One day when I was busy Student Teaching a big class of active 1st graders, I suddenly started seeing flashing lights and had blind spots in my field of vision. We were doing an activity in which the children were writing letters and words in shaving cream on their desks. I remember the scent of the cream was overwhelming and painful to my senses.

After 30 minutes or so I started to see more clearly, but my head hurt as it had never hurt before.

It felt like something was clamping down around my head and squeezing so hard I couldn’t focus.

And the fluorescent lights were unbearable! I found myself squinting, trying to block out the light.

Then I started feeling nauseated and told my cooperating teacher I didn’t feel well and went to the restroom. I threw up and tried returning to class despite having no relief in symptoms.

Helping People With Chronic Illness

Thankfully, I had such an amazing cooperating teacher. Her friend next door (who I later learned suffered from recurring migraines) encouraged me to rest, took me to a vacant room, and pulled the shades down so it was dark.

I so appreciated their care and concern for me that day. It was a scary experience because I’d never felt that way before.

Later, they encouraged me to see a doctor. When I visited the doctor, he said it sounded like I was having migraines. He prescribed a migraine medication for when I had another one. He also asked me to keep a migraine diary to record every time I had a migraine, the symptoms and what I was doing or eating beforehand.

Related: Migraine Buddy: THE App For People With Migraines

migraine headache symptoms /   bright light

What Are Migraine Triggers?

Migraine headaches can come on quickly and, seemingly, without warning. But if you’ve had migraines for a while you start to see signs when a migraine attack is on its way. And even though migraines are not fully understood, we know the environment and genetics are involved. Identifying and avoiding your triggers can help you prevent future migraine attacks.

So, let’s take a look at some factors that could be causing your migraines.

migraine headache symptoms

Migraine Triggers And Risk Factors

Migraine Triggers

  • Strong or unusual smells
  • Bright or flickering lights, especially fluorescent ones
  • Loud sounds
  • Food triggers including aspartame, nuts, citrus fruits, red wine, soft cheeses, large amounts of caffeine, and food with added nitrates or nitrites and MSG. And despite what you may have heard, chocolate doesn’t seem to be a trigger. This common misconception is likely due to people craving sweet foods, such as chocolate, before a migraine strikes.
  • Dehydration – You can counteract this by drinking plenty of lemon water
  • Stress (Read 5 Simple Ways To Relieve Stress And Relax for helpful tips)
  • Not eating when you’re used to eating regular meals
  • EMFs from computer screens and cell phones
  • Weather changes, including high humidity, barometric pressure, and high altitude
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Vigorous exercise, especially if you’re not used to it (Check out 4 Essentials Before You Start A Health Or Fitness Program for advice to help you ease into a fitness plan.)
  • Teeth grinding
  • Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy
  • Taking drugs including cannabis and cocaine
  • A change in your routine
  • Overuse of migraine medication, opiates, and barbiturates
migraine triggers / cheese with figs
Soft cheeses and nuts are migraine triggers for some people.

Now for some risk factors that make some people more susceptible to migraines.

Migraine Risk Factors

Knowing your migraine triggers and the risk factors involved is an excellent preventative tool. Also, keeping a migraine diary can help you recognize common patterns. I’ve found an app that serves this purpose and I absolutely love it! It’s called Migraine Buddy and it is free.

You can learn more about it here: Migraine Buddy: THE App For People With Migraines

Migraines Can Be Unpredictable

From reading about my first migraine, you likely picked up on some of the unusual symptoms I was having.

Now, let’s dig deeper to find out more about how to know if you are having a migraine or not. Please keep in mind that symptoms are different for everyone, but typically impact the sensory system.

Also, just because you have a certain symptom with one migraine episode it doesn’t mean you’ll always have that same symptom. Generally speaking, my migraine symptoms are similar each time. But, I’ve experienced other symptoms, such as tingling and numbness in my face and limbs, a few times too.

I hope this will help you or someone you love find the answers you’re searching for. I urge you to meet with your doctor if you’re experiencing the signs below.

migraine headache symptoms

10 Migraine Headache Symptoms and Signs

1. Sensitivity To Smell

About half of migraine sufferers experience this. Smells are so intense for these people that they are many times overwhelming and cause nausea.

2. Numbness Or Tingling Of The Limbs

During a migraine, the sensory system is in overdrive. The tingling or numb feeling is often on one side of the body and can spread from an arm or leg to the face (1).

3. Migraine Aura

This happens when you have blind spots or see flashing lights. For me, this is usually the first sign that I’m getting a migraine. It usually lasts about 30 minutes; That gives me enough time to down a cup of coffee, close the shades (or put on dark sunglasses), apply peppermint essential oil to my forehead, and take my migraine medication. If I wait past this point to take my medicine, the migraine symptoms are usually much more intense.

4. Vertigo

If you’ve ever experienced vertigo, then you know what this feels like. You feel off-balance and out of kilter. You want to lay down, but even if you do the feeling may not stop (2).

5. Nausea And/Or Vomiting 

This is a very common symptom of a migraine, but could also be caused by something else, like a stomach bug. Like the other symptoms, this may occur with every migraine or not at all. I’ve had this symptom with 100% of my migraines.

6. Movement Makes The Pain Worse 

Routine activities such as walking or standing up can intensify the pain.

7. Difficulty Speaking 

This is one of those unusual symptoms which can be frightening because it’s also associated with strokes.

8. Yawning 

Yes, it’s weird but true. Yawning can be a clue that you’re getting a migraine.

9. Throbbing Pain On One Or Both Sides Of The Head 

Many migraine sufferers experience pain on the same side of their head every time they get a migraine, while for others it varies.

10. Sensitivity To Light 

Many people want to get in a dark, quiet room because even a small amount of light tells your optic nerve to turn on the pain receptors. This is such a strong reaction that in a 2010 study, even people who were blind experienced increased pain due to light (3).

Migraine Headache Symptoms in Children

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, about 10% of school-age children suffer from migraine headaches. It’s hard enough for adults who get migraines, but for children, it can be especially difficult and scary.

This SlideShare presentation will help you learn more about migraine headaches in children.

The presentation was provided by Diamond Headache Clinic

Summary – Signs and Symptoms of Migraine Headaches

While this list is not all-inclusive, I’ve highlighted some of the most common signs of a migraine, as opposed to a simple headache. I hope you’ve found this useful and would love to hear from you about your experiences.

Also interesting, a recent study published in Neurology found that taking supplemental CoQ10 reduced the frequency of migraines by 27%. CoQ10 has many other benefits as well, such as preventing cancer. And I’ve found that taking Magnesium Citrate is an effective preventative as well.

This is the Magnesium Citrate that I take daily.

What do you think about these migraine headache symptoms? What would you add to this list?

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2 thoughts on “10 Migraine Headache Symptoms Plus Triggers and Risk Factors”

  1. Timing of this article was perfect! Just this past weekend I experienced a headache like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I wasn’t sure if it was a migraine, or maybe just a severe headache. After reading your piece I don’t know that it was a migraine. I did have the sensitivity to light and nausea, but I didn’t have the sensitivity to smells or auras. I hope to never go through it again, but if I do I will pay attention to the signs you mention. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi there Mrs. F! I’m so happy you visited the site. 🙂

      I’m glad the article came at a good time for you! I’m sorry that you had such a terrible headache (or migraine). Praying you never have to go through that again either.

      If you would like to do some more reading, https://migraine.com/migraine-tools/ is a great resource that has tools and quizzes that people can take when they’re not sure whether they’re having migraines or not. Then, if your results suggest it might have been a migraine you can decide if you want to follow up with your doctor.

      I’m planning to do a follow-up article soon about different treatments for migraines, including both holistic and pharmaceutical therapies.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope you come back to visit soon!

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