Learning about the different types of migraine and headache disorders can help you better understand your symptoms and discuss them with your doctor.
When you hear “migraine,” you may think of a severe headache. But migraine is more than just a headache—it is a debilitating neurological disease that comes in many forms, both with and without headache. Below, we cover some common types of migraine as well as several other headache disorders and their symptoms.
This article is meant to educate about migraine and other headache disorders—it is not meant to offer medical advice or take the place of a diagnosis from your doctor. Always remember to speak with your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing.
Migraine With Aura
About a quarter of people who experience migraine also experience aura, a visual disturbance or change in sensations that typically signal an oncoming attack. These disturbances may include seeing patterns (dots, sparks, zigzags or other visual disturbances), tingling or numbness on one side of the face (or body) and/or disruptions in speech or language. Aura is the second phase of migraine’s four distinct phases and usually lasts for 5 to 60 minutes. It can occur with or without headache.
Migraine Without Aura
70-75% of patients with migraine do not experience aura. Symptoms are moderate to severe episodes of head pain with pulsing or throbbing pain on one side of the head. Headaches are usually made worse with physical activity and are often associated with sensitivity to light and/or noise and nausea and/or vomiting.
Migraine Without Head Pain
Also known as silent or acephalgic migraine, this type of migraine is classified as “typical aura without headache” by the International Headache Society. This means that a person may experience aura and other symptoms of migraine, but no head pain. For this reason, migraine without head pain can be alarming. It can be triggered by any of a person’s typical migraine triggers, and people who experience migraine without head pain are likely to experience other types of migraine as well.
People who experience this rare form of migraine experience weakness on one side of their body. It may be with other aura symptoms (like visual disturbances) and a “pins and needles” feeling. Hemiplegic migraine symptoms can last from a few hours to several days and may initially be mistaken for signs of a stroke. Similar to migraine without head pain, hemiplegic migraine does not always include headache symptoms.
Hemiplegic Migraine is an extremely rare form of migraine. If you ever experience weakness with your headache, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Retinal migraine causes temporary loss of vision in one eye. This type of migraine is most commonly experienced by women during their childbearing years. Vision loss can last between five and 60 minutes, but should be fully reversible. Retinal migraine is rare, and people sometimes confuse it with migraine with visual aura. However, retinal migraine occurs in only one eye, unlike many visual disturbances experienced during the typical aura phase.
Chronic migraine impacts 3-5% of the American population. It is defined as experiencing 15 or more days with headache pain per month for more than three months. To qualify as chronic migraine, at least eight of those headache days must have migraine symptoms, but there may be considerable variability in the severity of headache pain on any given day. Some days patients may mistake the pain for a “tension headache” or “sinus headache” if the pain is less severe.
Abdominal migraine is commonly experienced by children and is characterized by a pain located in the middle of the stomach around the belly button. In addition to abdominal pain, symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and a pale complexion (pallor) in the face. Some children may also experience other migraine symptoms like light and noise sensitivity, though head pain is typically not a symptom. Attacks can last from two to 72 hours, and children usually should have no symptoms between attacks.
Migraine “Let Down” Headache
Stress is a common migraine trigger. However, relaxing after stressful events can also be a trigger. A “let down” headache is a type of migraine attack that happens when someone with migraine is finally removed from the stressful event, usually when preparing to relax. Researchers think that the hormone cortisol—the body’s main stress hormone—plays a role. Cortisol levels increase in times of stress and fall during periods of relaxation. The fluctuation of cortisol levels can trigger attacks.
Ice Pick Headache (Primary Stabbing Headache)
Ice pick headaches often come on suddenly with an intense, sharp pain—like you’re getting stabbed with an ice pick. They’re short—usually only lasting 5-30 seconds—but incredibly painful. These headaches occur around one of the eyes or temples. They can also happen in people with other primary headache disorders (e.g. migraine, cluster headache, hemicrania continua, etc.) as its own syndrome (primary stabbing) or from more serious causes (secondary stabbing).
Cluster headache is a primary headache disorder characterized by attacks that come in groups, or “clusters.” During these cycles, a person may experience severely painful headache attacks between one and eight times per day for 15 to 180 minutes. These are among the most painful of all headaches and include burning pain around and above the eyes, at the temples, and occasionally and simultaneously at the back of the head. They are usually associated with red, tearing and swollen eyes. Other symptoms include pain on one side and drooping or puffiness of the eyelid on that side. Most patients in a cluster attack cannot find a comfortable position and often feel the need to pace or rock. The pain and other symptoms are almost always debilitating.
Cervicogenic headache (CH) is triggered by an injury or disorder affecting the neck or cervical spine. Injuries and arthritis are the most common causes. Symptoms are limited to head and neck pain and are sometimes accompanied by neck stiffness or limited mobility. CH symptoms can easily be confused with migraine symptoms, but people with migraine often also experience symptoms unrelated to neck pain, such as sensitivity to light, nausea and trouble concentrating.
There are many different types of headache disorders, and pinpointing the exact cause of head pain or other symptoms can be difficult. Keep a record of all your symptoms, and bring this information with you when you speak with your doctor. With the right diagnosis, you can find a treatment plan that works for you.
When experiencing symptoms—such as visual disturbances (especially in one eye only), numbness or weakness—for the first time, you should contact your clinician for evaluation.
The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. To learn more about all of your migraine treatment options, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.