8 Unexpected Signs You’re Having a Migraine

Anyone who’s had a migraine before knows they hardly compare to a simple headache. They’re all-encompassing, often attacking the person in question with a slew of symptoms that make it nearly-impossible to go to work, participate in social activities, or in more severe cases, even get out of bed. And that’s just part of the frustration.

“We do not yet know why migraines occur, but do know that they are hereditary (if your parents had migraines, you’re more likely to have them),” Isha Gupta, M.D., a general neurologist at IGEA Brain & Spine, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “We also know certain causes or triggers of migraines, including stress, too much or lack of sleep, dehydration, certain foods such as red wine and chocolate, and caffeine withdrawal.”

Not sure whether or not your bad headache could, in fact, be something more serious, like a migraine? Look for these eight signs.

1. Throbbing head pain

Man with a migraine

A headache is the number one symptom associated with migraines. | iStock.com

This is the most well-known symptom associated with migraines, mainly because it’s the most painful one. This pulsating, throbbing pain is often felt on one side of the head. In fact, an online survey presented at the 57th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society, found approximately half of patients who reported frequently experiencing migraines always felt this pain on one side of the head as opposed to both.

“Rather than a constant pain, patients will often describe a pulsating type of pain that is not consistent the entire time, but torturous indeed,” Ilan Danan, M.D., a sports neurologist at Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, California, said.

Why it happens

human head with headache pain

We might not know why they happen, but we do know some details. | iStock.com/the-lightwriter

While the exact reason migraines occur is unknown, Danan says scientists do know that they’re caused by abnormal brain activity triggered by a number of things, from caffeine withdrawal to alcohol consumption. According to the National Headache Foundation, though, we know they typically occur among those between the ages of 10 and 45, and the symptoms tend to last for up to 72 hours.

2. Nausea

Stressed young woman in bathroom

Nausea is common among those who get migraines. | iStock.com/CentralITAlliance

Another well-known, and incredibly pesky, migraine symptom is nausea, which affects nearly three-quarters of those who get migraines, according to the American Migraine Study II. The same research says up to one-quarter of those folks deal with vomiting, too.

For unknown reasons, the study found that females tend to experience this side effect more so than their male counterparts. Most often, those experiencing nausea and vomiting tend to also experience vertigo, or dizziness.

Why it happens

Beautiful woman in toilet

Seems strange for something you typically associate with head pain, doesn’t it? | iStock.com/vadimguzhva

Since the very cause of migraines is largely unknown, researchers are still trying to discover why nausea and vomiting are side effects. Studies have shown, however, that migraines are the type of headache most likely to be linked with nausea. It’s similar to the way a hangover is linked to head pain, nausea, and vomiting.

3. Auras

Woman suffering from migraine and hands on her forehead

Auras occur just before a migraine. | iStock.com/absolutimages

These sometimes zig-zagging lines or flashes of light are common signs of migraines, often occurring around 60 minutes before the onset of the actual headache. “In addition to the changes in the visual system, less commonly recognized symptoms of migraine aura can include attacks of vertigo, or a sensation of feeling off-balance,” Jay Lombard, D.O., neurologist, and director of Lifespan’s Brain Performance Program, told us. “They typically last between five minutes to an hour, but can be incredibly distracting to the point where the sufferer needs to lie down.”

Why it happens

Ultrasound Therapie - 3D rendered illustration

Auras are just as mysterious as migraines. | iStock.com/xrender

Though scientists aren’t totally sure the cause of auras, or migraines in general, research suggests auras come from a chemical or electric wave that internally moves across the brain. The disruption in your visual system presumably results from processing signals from your senses. When experiencing a migraine with an aura, it’s best to sit or lay down in a quiet, dark room. If possible, place a cold compress on your head for additional relief and try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.

4. Changes in mood

worried young man sits on the edge of a bed

Migraines can cause awful mood swings. | iStock.com

While there are a variety of things that can change your mood, like the time of year or your menstrual cycle, such shifts can also be a sign that you’re about to have a migraine. In fact, studies have shown there may be a genetic link between depression and migraines, especially when an aura is also present. Migraines may also precede other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and anxiety disorders.

The link between migraines and depression

Sad woman lying on the couch at night

Migraines are strongly linked to depression, but the exact link is unclear. | iStock.com/tommaso79

The common assumption is that terrible headaches, as painful and debilitating as they are, make people experiencing them depressed; however, that’s not the case. One study even found people with chronic pain conditions, such as lower back aches, don’t even experience depression as frequently as those dealing with frequent migraines. Scientists don’t know the exact cause of the link, but they do know that migraines lower quality of life in a way that’s similar to depression.

5. Major stress and lack of sleep

Woman lying in bed upset

Sleep is always a key player in your overall health, so it’s concerning when migraines get in the way. | Thinkstock

Sleep is monumental to our health — so it’s no surprise that trouble falling and staying asleep is linked to migraines. In fact, the American Migraine Foundation reports those who get migraines are at a greater risk for sleep disorders. “Changes in sleep patterns, as well as high levels of stress, can be one of the most common triggers, as well as early signs of migraines,” Lombard added. “And once migraines occur, it can be quite difficult, if not impossible, to manage a good night’s sleep.”

Why it happens

Alarm clock on night table

It’s likely you’ll have trouble snoozing if your head is pounding. | iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

According to the American Migraine Foundation, nearly half of all migraines occur between the hours of 4 a.m. and  9 a.m., so the pattern of waking up often due to incessant head pain is already an explanation. There’s even an actual term for this occurrence: awakening headache. And it may be presented as either a tension headache or a migraine.

So what can you do? Aim for consistency. “The best preventative strategy for this is to ensure normal sleep patterns on a consistent basis,” Lombard said.

6. Congestion

painful expression at home

A lot of folks think they just have a sinus infection. | iStock.com/Tomwang112

Oftentimes, migraines can be misconstrued as sinus infections or even allergies — many of the symptoms are the same. In fact, the American Migraine Foundation reports a self-diagnosed sinus headache is actually a migraine about 90% of the time. A true sinus headache is actually rare and usually associated with a viral or bacterial illness that’s characterized by thick, nasal discharge, fever, in addition to other symptoms not associated with migraines.

Why it’s different from a sinus infection


For those with migraines, nasal congestion is only part of the picture. | iStock.com/LittleBee80

Those  experiencing a sinus infection don’t often complain of a headache as their first and only symptom, according to research. This is why, when nasal congestion follows head pain, it’s often a migraine. How can you know the difference? Most of the time, a sinus infection does not include other migraine symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, or pain mostly present on one side of the head.

7. Neck pain

Young Asian woman got back pain

You might have bad neck pain. | iStock.com/halfbottle

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found those who get migraines often experienced neck pain as well. This type of neck pain included tightness and stiffness, and also coincided with other migraine symptoms, such as sensitivity to light and sound as well as nausea. Neck pain can occur both before or after the migraine, too.

Why it happens

Man with pain in his neck

The link isn’t clear, but scientists have some ideas.| iStock.com/andriano_cz

It’s hard for even scientists to understand the connection between migraines and neck pain, however, there is a clear connection between head pain and neck pain, which may carry over. When we have pain in our head, our body’s involuntary reaction is to keep the head as still as possible, which actually places more strain on our neck. Scientists and chiropractors alike predict this is why neck pain is associated with migraines.

8. Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and smell

Stressed woman having headache

Being sensitive to light and sound is common for those who get migraines. | iStock.com/SIphotography

Although this side effect hasn’t been explored to the same level as auras and head pain, sensitivity to smells, sounds, and light are very common migraine symptoms. Everything from pizza to garbage to strong perfumes can affect someone with a migraine and heighten the rest of their symptoms. Research suggests more than 40% of those who get migraines report a heightened sense of smell during a migraine attack. Specifically, perfumes and colognes, food, and cigarette smoke were cited.

Why it happens

Tissue, flu medicines and tea on bedside table sick woman

Tissue, flu medicines and tea on bedside | iStock.com/CandyBoxImages

According to migraine.com, the condition can lead to heightened sensitivities since it’s related to brain function. Your best plan of defense is to seek out a dark, quiet room as far away as possible from a kitchen to relax and shake off the migraine symptoms.