How to identify a migraine headache

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A bad headache may not be migraine; if the headache is short and sharp, it might be a cluster headache. If the pain is continuous, it might be a tension headache -- or you may be taking too much medication.

The Classical Migraine
The aura (sensory symptom) lasts about half an hour and may or may not be followed by other migraine symptoms. The interlude is known as "classical migraine."

The Full-Blown Migraine
The full-blown migraine, also known as a "sick headache" or bilious attack (because of the nausea and vomiting that accompanies the headache), lasts from 2 to 72 hours. Some individuals suffer from nausea and vomiting and don't experience a headache.

Other Warning Signs
Several other warning signs appear in various sequences, including water retention (and thirst); anxiety or euphoria; diarrhea or constipation; hunger or sudden loss of appetite; unusual talkativeness or dysphasia (difficulty in speaking; numbness or hyper-sensitivity; and unusual wit or dullness).

The Aura Phenomenon
The manifestations of a migraine headache sometimes include "auras," a distortion of vision consisting of bright lights around objects or partial or full loss of vision.

Some people lose half of their visual field, and some people suffer only from these auras. They don't experience headaches, nausea, or vomiting. During migraine attacks, with or without auras, many people become hypersensitive to light and noise.

Auras have been compared to hallucinations that can affect sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch.

Some people see auras clearly; others experience them as distortions of reality in the form of "zig-zags" and exaggerated patterns. Complicated auras include visions of disembodied figures, strange animals and birds, miniatures, and gigantic figures.

Hallucinations range from sharp sounds of music to indistinct strains, changes in muscle tone, change in taste, and change in states of consciousness (memory, speech, perception).

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