What Causes Migraines?

There’s nothing quite as frustrating (or painful) as a day filled with the presence of a splitting headache. As one of the most common neurological conditions in the world, it’s likely that you’ve either experienced a migraine yourself or know someone who has suffered from migraines. Considering its status as the third most prevalent illness in the world, many of us wonder- what causes a migraine?

What is a Migraine?

If you’ve never experienced a migraine yourself, you may think that they’re just particularly bad headaches but this is far from the truth. Migraine sufferers experience a variety of symptoms that can oftentimes be debilitating. A few of the most common migraine symptoms include:

  • Severe head pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness or a tingling sensation
  • Sensitivity to sound or light
  • Difficulty speaking

Migraines have been shown to affect people of all ages and have been found to possess certain genetic components (we’ll talk more about this later). Migraine attacks vary in duration but most tend to last at least four hours. While painful for all who suffer from them, migraine severity also differs from one person to another.

The Components of Migraines

In order to understand what causes migraines, we have to identify the various components of a migraine. Each of these components have some effect on the emergence of migraine symptoms at varying degrees. Let’s touch on each of these components and explore how they relate to the causes of migraines.


The neurological component of migraine is the one that we think of most commonly. After all, when suffering from a migraine, many of us are referred to neurologists for treatment. The majority of migraine sufferers are thought to be experiencing the neurological effects of a problem with the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is responsible for receiving outside stimuli and reacts abnormally in those suffering from migraines.

When overwhelmed by stimuli (some of which we’ll discuss later), the trigeminal nerve sets off a wave of electrochemical activity that can cause migraines. While neurologists typically prescribe medications like triptans and anti-seizure medicines to alleviate the symptoms, these medications don’t effectively solve the problem and will have to be taken long-term.


You may be surprised to hear that around 90% of those suffering from migraines tend to have difficulties with how their bodies deal with sugar. It’s no coincidence that those with metabolic syndrome seem to have a much higher chance of suffering from migraines.

A 2009 study assessed 210 people diagnosed with metabolic syndrome for signs of a possible migraine diagnosis with particularly interesting results. Of the 210 people participating in the study, 22.5 percent of women and another 11.9 percent of men were shown to also meet the diagnostic criteria for migraine headaches.

In order to most effectively combat the metabolic component of migraines, one must make an effort to combat the risks of metabolic syndrome. This means making necessary lifestyle adjustments including dietary changes and more regular exercise.


While it can’t be said that psychological distress alone causes migraines, there seems to be a very real link between migraines and conditions like depression and anxiety. As we touched upon earlier, certain stimuli are shown to overwhelm the trigeminal nerve- resulting in migraines. Stress is one of these stimuli and can cause splitting migraine headaches due to the molecule and hormone level changes it causes.

Intense emotions are also shown to trigger migraines. These can include excitement, anxiety, anger, and sadness. Considering that psychological conditions most directly affect emotional states, the correlation between them and migraines is evident. Unfortunately, with the pain and debilitating effects of migraines, some accompanying level of stress is almost certain. This stress can then trigger even more migraines.


The endocrine component of migraines is most evident in cases of pregnant women who state that their migraine symptoms either improve or worsen during their pregnancies. There’s also a notable link between migraine symptom severity as a woman’s monthly cycle progresses. This is, similarly to the psychological component of migraines, due to changes in hormonal levels.


Finally, we have the orthopedic component of migraines. Many migraine sufferers state that back and neck injuries have a noticeable effect on the severity, frequency, and/or duration of their migraines.

While this is most evident in correlations between migraines and injuries to the upper cervical spine, there are a variety of orthopedic injuries shown to produce migraines. Muscle tightness brought on by injury or inflammation is another common orthopedic cause of migraines. Fortunately, many orthopedic physicians have noticed this correlation and have developed a number of treatment options via physical therapy that can help alleviate the symptoms and reduce the frequency of migraines.

Are You Suffering From Migraines?

If you’re suffering from the debilitating symptoms of chronic migraines, it’s vital that you seek the help and professional expertise of knowledgeable physicians. The Migraine & Neurological Rehabilitation Center in Provo, Utah, is here to help. Contact us today to book an appointment!

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