Migraine is the most common cause of disabling headache, affecting 35 million Americans. About 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men experience migraine in any year.

Migraine is most often hereditary. If you have migraines, it is likely that a family member suffers from them too. However, the severity and frequency of migraine attacks can differ dramatically between relatives. One family member may experience very rare migraine attacks, such as just after consuming alcohol ("hangover headache") or with menstrual cycles, while another may have very difficult daily, debilitating migraine.

Migraine attacks are characterized by recurrent episodes of pain, often on one side of the head, that may be throbbing or pounding. The headache is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound, as well as sensitivity to head movement. Migraine can occur at any time of day or night.

As you age, migraine may subside. Studies show that migraine attacks peak between the age of 35 and 45 and then begin to decline.

Signs and symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • Abnormal body sensations, called paresthesias, such as tingling, numbing or prickling
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Throbbing or pounding pain, often on one side of the head
  • Visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots in your vision
  • Worsening of pain with movement

Migraines are diagnosed, based on the description of your symptoms. There's no medical test that can specifically identify the condition. Your doctor will ask about the severity, frequency and duration of your headaches as well as other symptoms you experience and any medications you take.

Before meeting with a headache specialist, maintaining a headache journal that tracks headache patterns — can provide helpful information for your diagnosis and treatment. Information to note in your journal includes:

  • Duration of pain
  • Location and severity of pain
  • Medications taken
  • Possible headache triggers

If your headache is associated with visual symptoms such as flashing or zig-zagging lights, blind spots or numbness on one side of the head, it is called migraine with "aura," previously known as classic or classical migraine. About 20 percent of people with migraine experience this type of headache.

Migraines can be triggered by a number of factors. By identifying and avoiding these triggers, you can help manage your headaches. Keeping a headache journal that tracks the date, time and onset of your headache, a list of medications, and other external factors can help you and your doctor track patterns and plan treatment.

Common trigger factors include:

  • Diet — For some people, certain foods trigger migraines, although this is rarely the only cause. Alcohol, especially red wine, the sugar substitute aspartame, caffeine, the food seasoning monosodium glutamate (MSG), foods such as aged cheese that contain tyramine, and nitrites in foods such as preserved meats may cause migraines.

  • Environmental Factors — Migraine headaches can be triggered by environmental conditions including weather or temperature changes, glaring or fluorescent lights, computer screens, strong odors and high altitude.
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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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UCSF Clinics & Centers

Neurology and Neurosurgery

Headache Center
2330 Post St., Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 353-8393
Fax: (415) 353-9539
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