Migraines Overview

Types of Migraines

When migraines begin to interrupt your school or work day, it's time to see a doctor.
When migraines begin to interrupt your school or work day, it's time to see a doctor.
©iStockphoto.com/Lisa F. Young

The head is a funny thing. There are millions of ways it helps you every day, but there are lots of different ways it can cause you pain, too. While doctors don't really know why certain people get certain types of migraines, they do know some fundamental differences. A higher percentage of women suffer migraine pain. Men, on the other hand, are ten times more likely than women to get cluster headaches, which usually cause pain behind one eye. Migraines run in families, whereas cluster headaches don't. Migraine pain is usually concentrated on one side of the head or the other, while cluster headache pain is usually behind one eye or the other.

These are some of the different types of headaches and migraines:

  • Chronic migraines: People who experience more than 15 migraines in a month are diagnosed with chronic migraine.
  • Classic migraines: These are migraines with an aura -- the lines, colors, zigzag patterns and blind spots at the edge of vision that occur before migraine pain hits.
  • Common migraines: This is when you have migraine pain with no aura. These can come on suddenly, but some have symptoms like euphoria or cognitive problems before the onset of pain.
  • Ocular migraines: Some people get aura symptoms -- zigzagging lines, blind spots, floating lights -- without the head pain of a classic migraine. These usually last about 30 minutes. The good news is that these are harmless, probably caused by changes in the eye's blood vessels. The bad news is that there's no way to prevent or cure them; you just have to stick them out. If you have these and think they're disrupting your schoolwork or profession, schedule a checkup with your eye doctor to make sure they aren't symptoms of a more serious eye disease (they usually aren't).
  • Abdominal migraines: These are more common in children; however, adults can have this form, too. These are often difficult to diagnose because when an abdominal migraine strikes, the symptoms of a migraine are present (increased light and sound sensitivity, nausea, vomiting). Yet, similar to an ocular migraine, there is no head pain. If you believe your child is experiencing abdominal migraines, contact your pediatrician.
  • Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches are not migraines. They are quite possibly the most painful of all headaches. The pain explodes suddenly, usually about two hours after the person has gone to sleep. Unlike that of a migraine, the pain comes on quickly and is concentrated behind one eye or the other. They can last anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, often disappearing as quickly as they came. They are called cluster headaches because they occur repeatedly for several weeks at a time -- and then go away for months, or even a year or more -- before another cluster begins. Cluster headaches do not seem to run in families, and they don't seem to be caused by brain diseases or chemical factors. Lack of sleep and other behavioral factors seem to be the primary cause.
  • Thunderclap headaches: Like cluster headaches, a thunderclap headache is very sudden and severe -- like a thunderclap -- though it lasts a much shorter time and does not recur nightly. These are usually signs of something seriously wrong, like blood pooling in the brain. If you experience one of these, get to the doctor right away!

With such a wide array of symptoms, how do doctors diagnose migraines? Read on to learn how physicians are able to differentiate between migraines and what can appear to be deadly conditions.