Explainer: What are migraines?

March 14, 2013 by Lyn Griffiths, The Conversation
Migraines often cause nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise. Credit: Shutterstock/Emilia Ungur

If you, or someone close to you suffers from migraine, you'll know it is much more than your average headache – migraine is a debilitating disorder that can even affect your sight and speech.

Migraine without aura is the most common type of migraine, accounting for about 70% of all cases. This migraine is often characterised by , nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise.

Migraine with aura is less common, affecting around a third of sufferers. This type of migraine is accompanied by neurological disturbances such as visual and speech impairment and muscular changes which is often experienced shortly before or during the early stages of a migraine.

Visual auras may appear as shimmering lights around objects or at the edges of a person's field of vision; they may give the appearance of wavy images or even cause temporary loss of vision.

Non-visual effects can include weakness, speech or language abnormalities, dizziness, vertigo, and tingling or numbness of the face, tongue, hands or feet.

Migraine affects approximately 12% of the western population, with 18% of women, 6% of men and 4% of children suffering from the condition. There are considerable differences in the prevalence of migraine culturally, with Caucasian populations having the highest rates globally.

The condition causes a substantial . In 1990 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the total cost of migraines to the Australian economy was around $721 million per year, mostly due to loss of productivity at work and reduced occupational effectiveness. Health-care costs associated with migraine are also sizable, with millions of dollars spent on medical consultation and treatment for migraines each year.


Sensitivity to particular foods and smells, fluctuating hormonal levels, stress and fatigue can prompt migraines in sufferers, but the underlying causes are believed to be genetic and are poorly understood.

As a geneticist, I've been studying the molecular genetics of migraine for over a decade and have identified several genes (including the MTHFR, estrogen receptor, Notch 3 and TRESK genes) that increase a person's susceptibility to suffer from migraine. Most migraine sufferers (about 90%) have a close relative – a parent or grandparent – who also suffers from the condition.

Current treatments

There are a number of excellent pharmaceuticals currently available to treat migraine symptoms, but they are not effective for all sufferers. One of the most common class of drugs used to relieve migraine symptoms are triptans, which work by affecting the serotonin or 5HT1 neurotransmitter system within the brain. They relieve headaches in 30% to 50% of sufferers but the headache can reoccur, requiring a second dose.

Dietary folate and increased vitamin B levels could be the answer for migraine suffers. Credit: Shutterstock/Vucicevic Milos

But triptans can have unpleasant side-effects including sensations of tingling, heat, heaviness or tightness in the chest and throat, as well as flushing, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth and a transient increase in blood pressure. Also triptan overuse can sometimes lead to dependence and subsequent withdrawal syndromes.

Other drugs used to treat migraine symptoms include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anti-nausea and vomiting drugs and pain medication. The problem with these drugs is that they treat the symptoms, rather than the cause of migraine, which generally means that they are less effective.

Many migraine sufferers are concerned about the side-effects of these drugs and are looking for safe and effective alternatives to treat or prevent their condition.

A simple solution

Our research has shown (in papers published in 2009 and 2012) that dietary folate and increased vitamin B levels can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine. We have identified a specific gene that plays a role in causing migraine, in particular, migraine with aura. The gene has a mutation that results in a reduced enzyme level.

In our two clinical trials, results have shown that we can overcome the gene mutation by adding increased levels of the enzyme's "co-factors" to the diet. The co-factors are simple B group vitamins and they enable the enzyme to work better despite the mutation.

We found that Vitamin B supplementation reduced migraine disability over a six month period. Headache frequency and pain severity also decreased significantly. These results are very promising and provide the possibility of a simple but effective targeted treatment for migraine sufferers.

The final phase of this research, in which we are determining the specific required supplement dosages, is currently underway. Based on earlier results, we can expect this relatively inexpensive, non-toxic vitamin therapy to have enormous potential to improve the health and quality of life for many thousands of Australian sufferers.

The results of the final trial will be released in 2014 and we expect the treatment to be available shortly after.

Explore further: Migraine linked to increased risk of depression in women

Related Stories

Migraine linked to increased risk of depression in women

February 22, 2012
New research suggests women who have migraine or have had them in the past are at an increased risk for developing depression compared to women who have never had migraine. The study was released today and will be presented ...

Many migraine sufferers can predict their migraine attack

June 1, 2011
As many as one-third of sufferers of migraine with aura experience forewarning symptoms even the day before an attack that might create an opportunity for intervention and prevention. Later during the actual migraine episode ...

Four gene loci predispose people to most common subtype of migraine

June 10, 2012
An international research group has identified four new gene loci predisposing people to the most common subtype of migraine, migraine without aura. About two-thirds of migraine sufferers belong to this group. The study will ...

New hope for migraine sufferers: Female gene link identified

June 4, 2012
New hope has arrived for migraine sufferers following a Griffith University study with the people of Norfolk Island.

Recommended for you

MRSA emerged years before methicillin was even discovered

July 19, 2017
Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged long before the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin into clinical practice, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. It was ...

New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

July 18, 2017
A new test is the best-to-date in differentiating Zika virus infections from infections caused by similar viruses. The antibody-based assay, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Humabs BioMed, a private biotechnology ...

'Superbugs' study reveals complex picture of E. coli bloodstream infections

July 18, 2017
The first large-scale genetic study of Escherichia coli (E. coli) cultured from patients with bloodstream infections in England showed that drug resistant 'superbugs' are not always out-competing other strains. Research by ...

Ebola virus can persist in monkeys that survived disease, even after symptoms disappear

July 17, 2017
Ebola virus infection can be detected in rhesus monkeys that survive the disease and no longer show symptoms, according to research published by Army scientists in today's online edition of the journal Nature Microbiology. ...

Mountain gorillas have herpes virus similar to that found in humans

July 13, 2017
Scientists from the University of California, Davis, have detected a herpes virus in wild mountain gorillas that is very similar to the Epstein-Barr virus in humans, according to a study published today in the journal Scientific ...

Vaccines protect fetuses from Zika infection, mouse study shows

July 13, 2017
Zika virus causes a mild, flu-like illness in most people, but to pregnant women the dangers are potentially much worse. The virus can reduce fetal growth, cause microcephaly, an abnormally small head associated with brain ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.