Around 39 million Americans experience migraines, which can be severe, recurrent, and potentially disabling. Someone with a migraine may experience nausea or heightened sensitivity to light, sound, or touch.
Today’s question is, “How long do migraines last?”
The good news is that they don’t last forever. In fact, most last between four and 72 hours.
Migraine Duration and Frequency
On average, a migraineur suffers two to four headaches a month. Typically, the migraine lasts between four and 72 hours. The length and frequency vary between people, however. Some only get a migraine once or twice a year. In contrast, others may experience migraines more frequently — possibly one every few days.
Around three percent of migraine sufferers might have an incredibly intense form of migraine called status migrainosus (SM) that can last for more than 72 hours, even with treatment.
Migraines have recognizable stages, which can sometimes help a sufferer mitigate or even stop the attack. Unfortunately, not every migraine presents with all stages. However, learning to recognize the early stages is still helpful.
Stages of Migraine
The four recognized stages of migraine include (in order) prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome.
Prodrome is the premonitory or warning stage. Prodrome can occur as little as a couple of hours before the aura stage to as many as several days. The individual may notice subtle changes that are not necessarily related to head pain.
Symptoms of prodrome can include:
- Anxiety, mood changes, irritability, and depression
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Food cravings or increased thirst and urination
- Fatigue, muscle stiffness, or neck stiffness
- Light sensitivity
- Problems concentrating, speaking, or reading
If you can recognize the signs of prodrome, you have a chance to reduce your migraine head pain or eliminate it entirely with medication or other treatment.
Aura is a sensory disturbance that can range from flashing lights to the inability to speak normally. Not everyone experiences aura. It typically afflicts about 25% of migraine sufferers.
Aura tends to occur shortly before the migraine attack and can last between five minutes to an hour. In up to a fifth of patients, aura lasts more than an hour.
It's more common in children, although some adults experience aura. Sometimes the aura symptoms occur during the migraine itself. Occasionally, a patient may experience an aura that is not followed by a headache.
Symptoms of aura include:
- Hearing noises
- Impaired vision or hearing with blurry or the appearance of blind spots
- Slurred speech or weakness in the face or body
- Temporary loss of sight
- Numbness or pins and needles feeling in the limbs
- The appearance of bright, flashing lights, sparkles, or stars, colored or dark spots, or geometric or zigzag lines
Rarely, individuals faint during aura or experience partial paralysis.
Headache or main attack typically has the same symptoms each time, whether you experience an aura or not. The pain can last from several hours to three days. Headache is the most acute stage of migraine, with more than 90% of sufferers experiencing symptoms that are severe enough to prevent them from functioning normally.
- Blurred vision
- Extreme sensitivity to light and noise
- Possible sensitivity to odors, touch, or movement
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Irritability, anxiety, or depression
- A feeling of burning, giddiness, or insomnia
- Stiffness in the shoulders and neck
- Nasal congestion
- Upset stomach, vomiting, or nausea
The pain is often described as throbbing, drilling, or like an icepick on one or both sides of the head. The pain tends to worsen with movement.
Postdrome, also called recovery or “migraine hangover," may come after a resolution period. Typically, it occurs at the end of the headache stage for about 80% of migraineurs. Postdrome can last for 24 to 48 hours.
Symptoms of postdrome include:
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Bodily aches
- Elation, depression, or dizziness
- Feeling drained
- Weakness or hunger, especially if the individual lost their appetite during the headache attack
How can you avoid migraine attacks or mitigate them in the early stages of prodrome?
Migraine Causes and Triggers
Many people find that specific triggers cause migraines. If you can identify your triggers using a headache diary to note your activities, foods, drinks, and environment before an attack, you may be able to avoid a migraine or stop it once it enters the prodrome.
Triggers differ between individuals. Here are some common triggers.
- Changes in the weather
- Bright lights
- Alcohol or caffeine
- Diet, skipped meals, or dehydration
- Some medications
- Hormonal changes such as menstruation
- Sleep problems
- Odors or stress
- Medication overuse (rebound headaches)
- Concussions or head injuries
You can treat migraines with home remedies. If those fail, a doctor may recommend prescription medication.
Home remedies that many find helpful include:
- Increasing your water intake
- Resting or napping in a dark, quiet room
- Using a cold compress or massaging your temples
- Limiting your screen time
- Using lamps instead of overhead lighting
- Drawing the blinds or curtains to block bright sunlight
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen
Prescription medications your doctor may recommend include:
- Anti-epileptics or anti-convulsants
- Calcium channel blockers
- Serotonin antagonists
- Botox(R) (botulinum neurotoxin)
- CGRP antagonists
So you see, you have multiple options to help eliminate or mitigate the pain of migraines.
When to Seek Help
According to the American Migraine Foundation, less than a third of migraine sufferers seek help from a physician. However, if you have a migraine episode that lasts longer than usual for you, seek a healthcare provider’s advice.
If you experience migraines multiple times throughout the month or year, make an appointment to see your doctor to assess the symptoms and develop a treatment plan tailored to your unique issue.
Go to the emergency room if the migraine becomes too severe and at-home or prescription treatments aren’t working.
Seek immediate assistance if you experience any of the following:
- An extremely severe headache, the “worst you ever had in your life”
- A headache that starts abruptly, especially if you are over 50
- The migraine lasts longer than 72 hours
- The migraine is accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, confusion, slurred speech, or a seizure
- If you are 40 or older and are experiencing your first migraine ever
If you sustain a head injury, always seek medical attention immediately.
Identifying your migraine triggers is the most straightforward pathway to preventing migraine attacks. Track your migraine details, sleep and eating habits, and environmental exposure. You may find ways to reduce your migraine attacks drastically.
If you find stress plays a role, try meditation or feedback. Your physician may suggest transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Taking magnesium, vitamin B2, or coenzyme Q10 seems to help some sufferers prevent migraines. Your doctor may prescribe preventative medications to take that can limit your attacks.
In children, help them manage their sleep habits and improve their nighttime routine.
Migraines are no fun. They hurt, can last for up to three days, and come with a range of bewildering symptoms and stages. You can feel irritable or tired. You might see flashing lights—your head aches.
Knowing what can trigger your migraines can help you avoid them or make them less severe. You also have options in home remedies and medical treatments.
If you have questions or need assistance, contact the Migraine Relief Center. We know headaches.