What Happens to Your Body When You Have a Migraine?

A migraine is more than just a bad headache It’s a neurological disorder  that causes the brain to over react to external stimuli.

This over reaction can cause symptoms such as:

  • throbbing head pain
  • sensitivity to either light or sounds
  • visual
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • tingling or burning sensation in other parts of the body.

What’s happening in the brain to create such a varied number of symptoms?

A migraine typically starts with a trigger, which is often incoming sensory information that wouldn’t bother most people, such as opening the door to a bright, sunny day or walking through the intense smell of coffee beans roasting. Other triggers can be things like stress, lack of sleep or being unwell.

And as a result of these stimulation , the migraine brain has an over- reaction. There are many structures in the brain and nervous system that can register these triggers and produce a varied number of symptoms.

How a Migraine Affects Your Body?

1. Eyes and Ears:

how migraine affect your body

Ears´ Symptoms:  auditory hallucinations you may hear sounds that are not there.

  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Seeing bright spots or zigzag lines

The brain and nervous system is always sensing your environment. When one of your migraine triggers comes across your radar, some pathways in your brain misfire for a short time. This misfiring can affect how you see and hear things during what is call the aura. About 30% of migraine sufferers have an aura, before the pain of the migraine hits.  Auras can vary in time, but typically most are around 20 – 60 minutes (although some can last for days )

Less common are auditory hallucinations. Of those who suffer hearing disturbances during their aura, about 40%  say they hear their heart beat when a migraine strikes.

Types of migraines that can affect your vision

Migraines with Aura

About 30% of people who suffer from migraines experience symptoms in advance of a migraine known as auras. They may see flashing lights, wavy lines or dots, and they may have blurry vision or blind spots up to an hour before the pain begins. Migraine sufferers also report visual or auditory hallucinations and disruptions in smell, taste, or touch. Numbness, a “pins, and needles” sensation, or difficulty in recalling or speaking the correct word can also signal the onset of a migraine. People usually assume that the visual disturbance are the “migraine aura “ but any of the symptoms mentioned above are collectively called “migraine aura “

Retinal migraines

One scary type of migraine is the Ocular or “retinal” migraines. During these attacks sufferers temporarily lose sight in one eye – this is a are far less common type of aura thank fully. If you do experience these migraine symptoms you should seek medical help. Vision loss could signal a condition more serious than a migraine.

Can an eye exam help?

Migraine relief, type of migraine, how to stop migraine pain

Pain associated with a migraine in and around the eye is usually referred pain from the headache rather than the result of an eye problem. However, an optometrist can evaluate the nerves in the eyes and test for increased pressure in eyes which is not related to the migraines, but can cause eye and head pain. It’s also important for migraine sufferers to correct vision issues that may exacerbate migraines or trigger headaches.

If you or someone you know suffers from migraines that involves vision and or eye pain, talk to an eye care provider about the symptoms to ensure you receive the treatment you need.

Health tips

  • If your migraine attacks are triggered by visual stimuli such as fluorescent lights or computer screens, blue blocking glasses are definitely advised.
  • Keep a journal of what you eat and drink, and what you were doing leading up to your migraine. The journal can help you and your doctor identifies migraine triggers.
  • Put blue light blocking apps on your computer screen and the screen on your mobile device
  • Get annual eye exams to keep your vision healthy.
  • You can learn more about migraine home remedies here.

The Link Between Migraines and Tinnitus

type of migraine, link between tinnitus and migraine

  • Tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, clicking, or whistling sound in your ears that's not related to anything external—could be the result of a migraine. Scientific research on this points to a state of heightened sensitivity as a possible reason for this potential connection, though there may be others.
  • You may be wondering how your tinnitus (an ear problem) relates to your migraines (a brain problem).
  • One study found a link between tinnitus and migraines in a study of 1,645 French students with migraines. The study found that participants with migraines were more likely to also have tinnitus than those without a history of headaches. Interestingly, the link was stronger for those who suffered from migraine with aura than from migraine without aura.
  • Furthermore, a 2018 study found that having migraines was associated with a more than three times higher risk of developing tinnitus. Migraineurs were also found to have nearly three times higher risk of developing other cochlear disorders than those without migraines. The researchers theorized that this link could be caused by a process in the brain instead of a problem rather than with the cochlea itself.

2. The Brain

migraine relief, what happen inside your brain when your have migraine

A migraine is preceded by peculiar brain activity, that can be measured with a functional MRI. The extreme pain that ensues after.  is a result of the activation of receptors in the cranial blood vessels, which activates a pain pathway within the brain. Let’s look at these aspects in greater detail.

It is generally accepted that changes in the blood flow to vessels surrounding the brain are associated with migraine pain. The walls of blood vessels are lined with sensory neurons called nociceptors. When blood flow in the head changes, these nociceptors are activated and send an electrical message to the brain that is interpreted as pain. But changes in blood flow happen all the time and don’t always lead to a migraine. So there must be more to the story.

Recent theories for the pain of migraine propose that the trigemino-vascular pain pathway - brain wiring that connects blood vessels to the part of the brain that processes pain - is the major player. In migraineurs, this pathway is overly sensitized, so stimuli like stress, exercising, and certain foods that don’t usually trigger pain activate the pain pathway.

Interestingly the other migraine symptoms, such as the auras, tiredness etc are considered separate to do with the pain pathway. So that the auras etc have a different mechanism than the “pain” part of the migraine – making migraines a complicated neurological disease.

Often, migraine patients report one part of their vision becoming blurry - the blurriness slowly spreading to more distant parts of their visual field. The timing of this visual disturbance perfectly matches that of a well-characterized electrical disturbance in the brain called the “cortical spreading depression”. This abnormal wave of electrical activity (you can think of this as a moving electrical storm)  marches across the brain at about five millimeters per minute, and can be the starting point for migraine patients that have auras before their migraines.  

When the “cortical spreading wave “ spreads to  a part of the brain called the occipital lobe, it affects vision. If it marches over another area of the brain called the parietal lobe, it affects sense of touch and elicits a tingling sensation. Beyond pain and aura, migraine symptoms are numerous and vary among sufferers. This is thought to be due to where the Cortical Spreading Depression travels and because of the complicated inter connectedness of the brain.

It is difficult for researchers to pin down a unifying explanation. Strings of commonality have allowed us to piece together what we do know.

why do you get migraine

We know that nociceptors ( pain receptors )  and blood vessels of the brain are part of the story for the pain of migraine. We know that this pathway can become strengthened or more robust with more attacks and even certain migraine medications. This can lead sensitization of these pain pathways – so that the strength of the triggers may be less and yet still create a migraine. This sensitization concept explains why some people may get more and more sensitive to triggers that cause their migraines over time.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark analyzed six population-based studies and 13 clinic-based studies to see whether there was a link between migraines and brain lesions, silent abnormalities or brain volume changes.

Scientists have discovered that migraines may affect the long-term structure of the brain and increase the risk of brain lesions, according to a study published in the journal Neurology.

Sometimes after the worst pain of a migraine is over, you might feel like your brain is "off.” You may have trouble doing normal simple tasks for a few hours, or sometimes for as long as a couple of days. You might hear this called a "migraine hangover" or the "postdrome phase" of a migraine.

Brain symptoms of the postdrome ( migraine hangover )  

  • Problems making decisions.
  • Trouble speaking
  • Problems concentrating or paying attention
  • A tough time reading or writing
  • Changes in your senses of taste and touch
  • Problems remembering things
  • Mood changes
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness or coma (rare)

3. Head:

what happen to your body when your have migraine

Although migraines may cause pain all over the head, often the pain starts or is concentrated on one side. Pain on one side of the head is called unilateral pain. (When the pain is on both sides it is referred to as bilateral pain). More than half – about 59 percent – of migraine suffers complain that pain is on one side of the head according to the American Migraine Study II of almost 4,000 migraine sufferers in 1999.

Some sufferers say the migraine attacks always happen on the same side, in others it may occur on either side and still, there are those whose pain covers the head.

Studies have shown that the presence of pain on one side of the head is about the same whether the migraine occurs with or without aura – 58.1 percent for those with aura, and 60.3 percent for those without aura. Most studies include pain on one side of the head in the definition of migraine.

Uneven dysfunction in the brain stem may also be blamed for the one-sided migraine pain, according to a 2005 study that scanned the brains of patients as they suffered from a migraine. Researchers said the location of the disruption in brain function determines what part of the head hurts with migraines. The study found increased activity in part of the brain stem called the dorsolateral pons. For example, those with pain only on the right side of the head had more activity in the right side of the dorsolateral pons. The same was seen for those who only had pain from migraine on the left side, more action was seen on the left side of the brain stem.

About eight in ten people with migraines get at least one symptom of something called “allodynia”.  That´s when you get pain from things that should not cause pain.

  • Brushing your head
  • Shaving
  • Laying your head on a pillow
  • Wearing a hat or earrings

After one of your migraine triggers hits you, like bright light, stress, or even certain foods or lack of sleep, certain parts of your brain overreact.  This extra activity is thought to be the cause of allodynia

For women, the ups and downs of normal estrogen levels  can trigger migraine and the head pain that comes with it.  That may be why they have migraine attacks about three times more often than men.

4. Arms and Legs:

tingling in arm and leg can be caused by migraine

Almost 1 in 3 people with migraine say they have tingling and numbness before the pain of their migraine hits.

Arms and legs symptoms:

  • Numbness in arms, legs, fingers, or toes, usually on one side.
  • “sleeping sensation” in arms and legs.
  • A pins-and-needles feeling, often moving from your hand up your arm
  • Loss of balance and coordination

You may have tingling in a very small, specific body part, like one finger or just part of a finger.

The irritation of certain areas of your brain that can happen if you have an aura with your migraine can make your arms and legs tingle, or feel numb.  You might feel this in your fingers or toes, too. Usually, it would only happen only on one side.

5. Digestion:

how migraine affect your digestion

Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of migraine. Diarrhea is less common, but it’s possible to experience diarrhea along with a migraine.

It’s unclear what’s behind this association. Research studies Trusted Source suggests that migraines may be linked to several GI disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Both syndromes are marked in part by diarrhea and other GI symptoms.

People who experience regular GI symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation, may be more likely to experience migraines. Increased gut permeability and inflammation are two possible culprits of this association. Your gut microbiota, or how many healthy bugs are in your gut, may also play a role. More evidence is needed to confirm this association, however.

There may be a link between headaches and the gut. Nausea and vomiting are often associated with migraine attacks. And research suggests that people with frequent headaches may be more likely to develop gastrointestinal disorders.

Nausea is a part of migraine for about five out of every 10 people with the disorder.

Research has shown that people who regularly experience gastrointestinal symptoms — such as reflux, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea — have a higher prevalence of headaches than do those who don't have gastrointestinal symptoms.

Digestive symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Food and cravings

These studies suggest that people who get frequent headaches may be predisposed to gastrointestinal problems. Digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease, also may be linked to migraines. Treating these digestive conditions may help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. However, more research is needed to understand these connections.

If you experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea with your headaches, talk to your doctor about treatment options. Treating the headache usually relieves gastrointestinal symptoms.

Scientists don´t know exactly how yet, but your brain and your gastrointestinal tract are intertwined and interact with each other in complex ways.  You can have digestive issues before your migraine hits, while the attack is happening, or right afterward.

If you have ever noticed a change in your bowel habits right before a migraine headache, it could be tied to your migraine.  it could be part of the prodrome, or “preheadache” phase.

Don't let migraine take over the happy and productive parts of your life. If you find that you start to experience all the symptoms you read in this article, tell your doctor. Working with a medical provider and getting support should help keep you well.

You can learn more about migraine and diet here.

Compiled using information from the following sources: