Premonitory Symptoms: Predicting a Migraine

The prodromal phase may alert you to an attack

Premonitory symptoms, which occur during the prodromal phase of a migraine, are the first indications of an impending migraine episode. These can occur a few hours or several days before a migraine reaches its peak. About 60 percent to 80 percent of people who have recurrent migraines experience premonitory prodromal symptoms at least sometimes, and they tend to be associated with more severe attacks. When these symptoms do occur, they are followed by a migraine aura (if you have one) or by the migraine itself.

If you learn how to recognize your premonitory symptoms, you can use home remedies or take medications in an effort to stop your migraine from progressing.

premonitory symptoms of a migraine
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell 

Recognizing Premonitory Symptoms

A migraine generally consists of four sequential stages and can be a prolonged episode. You may routinely experience one, two, three, or all of these phases, or your migraines may differ in this regard each time they occur.

If you have premonitory signs and symptoms before your migraines, then you realize that a migraine isn't just a headache—it can involve your whole body as well.

Premonitory symptoms are variable, but the most common include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mood changes (depression or irritability)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (like a change in bowel habits or nausea).

Other common symptoms include:

  • Muscle stiffness/aching/pain, especially in the neck, back and face
  • Food cravings or a loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Feeling cold
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or smells
  • Excessive yawning
  • Vivid dreams

While premonitory symptoms are unpleasant, they are generally more tolerable than the pain, dizziness, vision changes, and other symptoms that you may experience with your migraines.

Prodrome vs. Migraine Aura

The terms prodrome, premonitory symptoms, and aura are frequently confused. A prodrome is the first migraine phase and is characterized by premonitory symptoms, while an aura is a different phase characterized by neurological symptoms.

A migraine aura lasts no more than 60 minutes, whereas premonitory symptoms last hours to days.

An aura is characterized by short-lived, localized neurological abnormalities, like numbness and tingling on one side of the body or vision changes in both eyes, whereas premonitory symptoms are more generalized and tend to be behavioral.

Premonitory symptoms are also different biologically from an aura. Premonitory symptoms are believed to involve the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which modulate pain and mood. Research also suggests that this phase may involve the hypothalamus, which controls hormones in the body.

An aura is characterized by electroencephalogram (EEG) changes described as cortical spreading depression, which is diminished nerve activity that sweeps across the outer layer of the brain.

When Premonitory Symptoms Strike

If you notice that you have premonitory migraine symptoms, you can try to make your next few days more comfortable by taking steps to reduce the severity, and possibly even avert, a migraine.

Keep in mind that since premonitory symptoms are associated with more severe migraines, it is a good idea to pay attention to them. They could indicate that an intense migraine is on the horizon, which you may need to prepare for.

  • Lifestyle: Important migraine prevention strategies include staying hydrated, relaxing, and avoiding your usual migraine triggers (e.g., such as bright lights, sleep deprivation, and alcohol).
  • Medication: If you have had success with a migraine treatment, such a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) or a prescription medication, taking it during your prodrome can minimize your migraine before it peaks.
  • Social: Let your loved ones know that you are experiencing prodromal symptoms to set up expectations. Now is also a good time to ask for support with things like errands and child care. Be aware that you may be more sensitive or easily angered. It may be best to avoid addressing emotional issues until you are physically more comfortable.

Because premonitory symptoms are so common, the key is trying to identify them so that you can take some action to avoid triggers that exacerbate your migraines or start your medication promptly.

A Word From Verywell

If you experience recurrent migraines, you need to try to recognize the patterns of your episodes, including the triggers, the earliest symptoms, and how often they occur. Recognizing premonitory symptoms is an important aspect of migraine management that can give you more control over the outcome and overall severity of your migraines. Researchers are studying this migraine phase to identify the earliest biological changes in migraine attacks, as well as how migraines can be treated before they reach their maximal intensity.

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