Having a migraine is not just a headache. It is a complex medical condition that involves specific triggers, changes in brain activity, and other factors. A migraine usually lasts for about four to seventy-two hours with the most typical symptoms being nausea, sensitivity to light or noise, and pulsing pain on one or both sides of the head. For most people who get migraines these symptoms are not constant, but instead cycle through different stages. Understanding how your migraine fits into these patterns can help you manage it better and get relief faster. Read on to learn more about the stages of a migraine episode and what you can do about it.
What is a migraine episode?
A migraine episode is the whole process of a migraine. It has four stages beginning with the migraine prodromal phase, followed by the aura phase, the attack phase, and finally ends with the postdrome phase. While not everyone will go through all phases, this is the typical process for most.
The first stage of a migraine attack is the prodrome stage. It is the period of time just before migraine symptoms begin and it can last for a few hours up to a few days before the actual migraine begins. During this time, you may notice some minor warning signs such as feeling irritable, anxiety, or sensitivity to noise. Other symptoms in this phase include food cravings, food aversions, and changes in bowel movements. This phase is distinct from the actual migraine phase in that these symptoms are much milder than the headache you will experience after the migraine begins.
The aura phase is the second phase of a migraine episode for some people. The aura phase may precede the attack or occur concurrently with it. Onset of an aura is usually gradual and lasts 30 minutes to two hours. A migraine aura is a temporary disturbance in the function of the brain and may affect your vision, cause tingling or numbness in your arms or legs, or make you feel unwell. Auras are most commonly visual aura symptoms, but can also be sensory, motor, or affect language. Auras are not a migraine itself but are a sign that a migraine is coming.
The attack phase of a migraine is when the migraine pain is at its peak. The duration of this phase varies from one migraine sufferer to another. Attack phase is the most intense period of pain during a migraine episode, and can last from four to 72 hours. If you get migraines and they last longer than 72 hours, you may have a different condition called transformed migraine. When you have a migraine attack, many people feel nerve pain on one side of the head, although these nerves are on both sides of the head and others feel overall pain and sensitivity.
The postdrome phase is the final stage when the acute pain is over. You may feel some after-effects like fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to light or noise, and confusion for up to a day post attack. Some people may experience feelings of elation, but that does not mean the migraine is completely over. The migraine episode is not over until the last signs of the migraine, such as nausea or sensitivity to light or noise, are gone. If you ignore those migraine symptoms, they can come back stronger than before. The migraine episode is a complex chain of events that triggers specific changes in your brain. You can track the stages of a migraine episode with our migraine timelines and use of a migraine diary.
Another form of headache attack that can last a few hours to days is the rebound headache. If you suffer from constant migraines, you may find yourself in a situation where you have a migraine attack, and then another one after that, and another one after that, etc. This is known as a rebound headache, and it happens because you are overusing pain medications. If you frequently use medication for your migraines the chance of rebound headache increases. For more information on rebound headaches see our blog post on the subject.
The migraine timeline is the full chain of events that happen during a migraine attack. It consists of four stages: the prodrome phase, the aura phase, the attack phase, and the postdrome phase. By being aware of the different stages of a migraine and symptoms experienced, you can better understand how your migraine works, and take action to get relief quicker.