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How Long Do Migraines Last?

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A migraine attack is a bad headache that can leave you feeling wiped out. According to the American Migraine Foundation, it is a neurological disease that affects approximately 12% of Americans. Migraine attacks are three times more common in women than in men. Approximately 1.5% of Americans experience chronic migraine (primary headache on most days).

Several effective acute migraine treatments are available, including over-the-counter and prescription medication. But when you’re experiencing migraine pain, you might wonder how long the migraine attack will last. 

Please continue reading to learn more about migraine headaches, including why they occur, how long they last, and when you should see a doctor for your headache symptoms.

What is a migraine attack?

Migraine attacks are severe headaches characterized by pulsing or throbbing pain. The migraine pain can occur on one or both sides of the head, at the front or back of the head, and in or around the eyes.

Migraine pain can be severe enough to prevent you from going about your normal activities. It is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensory symptoms such as sensitivity to light, noise, and smells. 

What causes migraine attacks?

The causes of headache disorders such as migraine are not fully understood. Experts believe these neurological disorders occur due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The trigeminal nerve and blood vessels are believed to be involved, as are neurotransmitters (natural chemicals in the brain that regulate pain) and inflammatory molecules.

Many people who suffer from migraines are able to identify specific triggers for their headaches. Common triggers include: 

  • Hormonal changes in women, such as around the menstrual cycle, at the time of menopause, or those who use hormonal contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy.
  • Certain foods (aged cheeses, salty snacks, chocolate) and drinks (alcohol, caffeine).
  • Food additives like MSG are known migraine triggers.
  • Head injury.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Mental stress.
  • Sensory stimuli like flashing lights, strong smells, or loud sounds.
  • Poor sleep.
  • Physical exertion.
  • Weather changes, especially barometric pressure changes.
  • Some medications can trigger migraines or make attacks worse.

How to recognize migraine symptoms?

Not everyone with migraine has the same symptoms. A common feature, however, is moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing pain that is severe enough to interfere with everyday life.

Head pain in migraines can be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and neurological symptoms such as blurred vision and increased sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells. 

Some people experience migraine with aura. Aura symptoms consist of visual disturbances (bright spots, flashing lights), pins and needles in the limbs, difficulty speaking, or weakness and numbness in the face or on one side of the body. Migraine aura usually occurs before the migraine pain starts and acts as a warning. 

How long does a migraine take to clear?

Migraine attacks can last anywhere from several hours to several days. There are four stages of a migraine attack—prodrome, aura, headache phase, and postdrome. 

Not everyone experiences all four phases. Also, each migraine attack can be different for the same person. The full migraine attack, including all four phases, can last up to a week, but this is unusual. A typical migraine headache lasts for 1-2 days.

Prodrome

Prodrome symptoms include a stiff neck, mood changes, fluid retention, or food cravings. They warn of an oncoming migraine attack. The prodrome phase typically lasts 1-2 days.

Aura

Aura symptoms can last up to 60 minutes before the headache pain starts. 

Headache Phase

In most people with migraine, the headache portion lasts for 4 to 72 hours without treatment

Post-Drome

Migraines tend to leave you feeling washed out, drained, or confused for up to 1 day after an attack—this is called the recovery phase, post-drome, or migraine hangover. Sudden head movement during this phase can bring back the head pain.

How long is too long for a migraine?

According to the Migraine Research Foundation and National Headache Foundation, a migraine attack that lasts longer than 72 hours (3 days) and does not respond to the usual acute treatment is called status migrainosus. This type of intractable migraine requires medical attention from a healthcare provider, especially if it is accompanied by vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. Doctors treat status migrainosus with IV drugs to break the cycle of pain.

Does a migraine headache go away by itself? 

Mild pain from a migraine may fade away on its own. Many people with episodic migraines find that sleep helps make it go away. In some people with migraine, the attacks stop over time without a known reason. There is no foolproof treatment to prevent future migraine attacks, but migraines can go into remission on their own in some people.

How can I shorten a migraine attack?

If you notice the warning signs and feel a migraine attack coming on, you might be able to reduce the severity and duration of the headache by hydrating aggressively (drinking a lot of water), resting in a cool, dark, and quiet place, and limiting physical activity. Other home remedies that may help include relaxation with a massage, meditation, or stretches for the face, jaw, and neck to release tension. A cold compress to the temples can also help relieve migraine symptoms and make them last for a shorter time.

When to see a doctor for migraine?

According to the American Headache Society, you should see a doctor if you have three or more migraine headaches per week or if you have a migraine that lasts more than 72 hours and does not respond to medications commonly used to treat migraines. 

It helps to keep a migraine journal with information such as what days you had headaches, known triggers, how long the head pain lasted, and what you did to treat it. You should take the headache diary to your doctor’s appointment—it will help your doctor formulate a treatment plan. Even if you already have a diagnosis of migraines, you should be medically reviewed if you notice any changes in your headache pattern.

Keep in mind that taking over-the-counter medications or prescription medications for severe headaches too frequently can trigger medication-overuse headaches, where the medication starts causing migraine pain instead of relieving it. The risk is highest with medications that contain combinations of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. You should see a doctor or a headache specialist if you take OTC pain medication on more than 14 days a month or prescription medications such as triptans on more than 9 days a month. 

 

References:

  1. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/ampp/#
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201
  3. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/how-long-does-a-migraine-attack-last/#