An Overview of Migraine Without Aura

A.K.A. Common Migraine

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Migraine without aura is one of two major types of migraines, and 75 percent of those who have the condition experience this particular kind. Also known as "common" migraine, people who have migraine without aura don’t get the visual or sensory warning signs, known as migraine prodrome, that are classic to the other type—migraine with aura.

People who experience migraines without aura typically have more frequent and disabling attacks than those who have migraine with aura.

Symptoms

The symptoms you experience during migraine without aura may not be exactly the same as someone else. Likewise, they can differ from episode to episode.

Symptoms of migraine without aura include:

  • Pain on one side of head
  • Pulsing or throbbing pain
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Sensitivity to sound (phonophobia)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain or discomfort that is made worse by physical activity

Causes

Scientists used to believe that migraines were caused by dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Now they believe that nerves within the brain and spinal cord play a vital role, releasing molecules like nitric oxide and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which trigger migraine pain.

As the migraine attacks progress, the brainstem and spinal cord become sensitized. This leads to a vicious cycle of head pain and an increased sensitivity to stimuli in one's environment.

Migraines are also associated with estrogen, which explains why migraines are more prevalent in women. Typically, higher estrogen levels will prevent migraine headaches, whereas lower estrogen levels can trigger them. But it may be more the fluctuation or change in estrogen that triggers a migraine, not simply the fact that the level is low.

Estrogen is also associated with increased levels of serotonin in the brain, so a decline in estrogen may be accompanied by a decrease in serotonin. Researchers believe that fluctuations in serotonin levels play a role in triggering migraines.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraine disease is often hereditary; if one or both of your parents have it, you have a 50 percent to 75 percent chance of getting it too.

Migraines without aura commonly have a relationship to a woman's menstrual cycle. According to the American Headache Society, 35 percent to 51 percent of women with migraines have menstrual migraines.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of migraine without aura is based on symptoms and history that you report to your doctor.

According to the third edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders, a diagnosis of migraine without aura can only be made when a person has at least five attacks meeting the following criteria:

  • Headaches that last four to 72 hours
  • Headaches that have at least two of the following characteristics: Unilateral (one-sided); a throbbing sensation, such as rapid beating or pulsation; pain that is of moderate to severe intensity
  • Migraine pain worsened by regular physical activity (i.e., walking, climbing stairs)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Photophobia and phonophobia
  • Headache that cannot be attributed to another disorder

Keeping a journal to record your symptoms and the frequency of your migraines is useful for helping your doctor make a diagnosis.

Your doctor may also have you answer the POUND mnemonic and ID migraine questionnaire, which can help clinch the diagnosis.

There is no blood test or imaging test that can confirm the diagnosis, although these may be used to rule out other possible causes, such as a tumor, stroke, brain bleed, and other neurological conditions.

Treatments

Numerous types of medications can be used to prevent migraines or treat them once they've taken hold.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as (Advil) ibuprofen or (Aleve) naproxen sodium
  • Triptans, including Imitrex (sumatriptan) and Zomig (zolmitriptan)
  • Antiemetics (anti-nausea medications)
  • Dihydroergotamines, including Migranal (D.H.E.)
  • Dexamethasone
  • Intranasal lidocaine
  • Antihypertensives (blood pressure lowering agents), such as metoprolol, propranolol, and timolol
  • Antidepressants, such as Elavil (amitriptyline) and Effexor (venlafaxine)
  • Anticonvulsants: These include valproate products, divalproex sodium, sodium valproate, and Topamax (topiramate)

People who suffer from migraines without aura are more likely than those who have other headache disorders to develop a medication-overuse (rebound) headache. Be sure to take a migraine drug exactly as directed.

There are also several neuromodulation devices that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of migraine without aura. These include:

  • Transcutaneous supraorbital neurostimulator (tSNS): Also called the Cefaly device, it electrically activates forehead nerves and creates a buzzing sensation. The signal goes into the brain, slowly turning headache pathways down over time.
  • Single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulator (springTMS, sTMS): This magnet is placed on the back of the head and turned on for a split-second pulse.
  • Non-invasive vagal nerve stimulator (nVNS): Called gammaCore, this device is placed on the neck over a gel and turned on to electrically stimulate the vagus nerve, causing mild buzzing and twitching neck sensations.

Alternative treatments—including acupuncture, massage, and certain herbs and supplements—may be helpful for preventing and treating migraines. Furthermore, many find lifestyle measures, such as meditation, exercising, avoiding certain foods, and getting enough sleep, an important part of their overall care.

Coping

Migraine without aura can be disabling, causing you to miss work and social events, and making it difficult to care for your loved ones. Because migraine disease is so prevalent, numerous online and in-person support groups are available for patients as well as their families and caregivers.

Your healthcare practitioner can help you find support groups, as can the American Migraine Foundation website.

A Word From Verywell

Migraine without aura is a complicated and debilitating neurological disorder, but it can be effectively prevented and treated. If you think you suffer from migraines, make sure to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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