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Woman with throbbing unilateral headache

Reviewed by Angeliki Vgontzas, MD

Charing Cross Hospital/Science Source

A 28-year-old woman presents with a throbbing unilateral headache (left side) and is very nauseated. She describes a white light in her line of vision. Her headaches are recurring, pulsating, and usually last for about 2 days without relief from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). She has been experiencing these episodes almost every month for the past 8 months and initially attributed them to her menstrual cycle, as she has always experienced moderate to severe headaches during this time. The patient is enrolled in a research trial in which single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging revealed low activity with reduced blood flow. The patient is nonfebrile.

What is the likely diagnosis?

Muscle contraction tension headache


Chronic migraine

Cluster headache

Basilar migraine

Migraine is a complex disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of headache, most often unilateral and in some cases associated with photophobia or phonophobia — a constellation known as aura — that usually arises before the head pain but may also occur during or afterward. Migraine is most common in women, and prevalence peaks between the ages of 25 and 55. In 2016, headache was the fifth most common reason for an ED visit and the third most common reason for an ED visit among female patients age 15-64.

Diagnosis of migraine is made on the basis of patient history. Examples of red flags in the differential would be the presence of neurologic symptoms, stiff neck, or fever, or history of head injury or major trauma. Migraine should also be distinguished from other common headaches. Tension-type headaches usually cause mild or moderate bilateral pain, with a deep, steady ache rather than the typical throbbing quality of migraine headache. In cluster headache, the patient experiences attacks of severe or very severe, strictly unilateral pain (orbital, supraorbital, or temporal pain), but the cadence of these headaches differs from that of migraines; these attacks last 15-180 minutes and occur from once every other day to eight times a day. Patients with basilar migraine, common among female patients, usually present with symptoms of vertebrobasilar insufficiency.

The American Headache Society defines migraine as when a patient reports at least five attacks. These episodes must last 4-72 hours and have at least two of these four characteristics: unilateral location, pulsating quality, moderate or severe pain intensity, and aggravation by or causing avoidance of routine physical activity. In addition, during attacks, the patient must experience either nausea and/or vomiting or photophobia and phonophobia. Signs and symptoms cannot be accounted for by another diagnosis.

Treatment of migraines is often associated with a trial-and-error period. For mild to moderate migraines, these agents may be considered: NSAIDs, nonopioid analgesics, acetaminophen, or caffeinated analgesic combinations. For moderate or severe attacks, or even mild to moderate attacks that do not respond well to therapy, migraine-specific agents are recommended: triptans, dihydroergotamine (DHE), small-molecule CGRP receptor antagonists (gepants), and selective serotonin (5-HT1F) receptor agonists (ditans). Menstrual migraines are treated via the same approaches as nonmenstrual migraines.

Many patients, like the one described here, experience severe nausea or vomiting with their migraine attacks. For these cases, nonoral agents may be considered (these agents are also an option for patients whose headaches do not respond well to traditional oral medication). Patients should be advised to limit medication use to an average of two headache days per week, and those who feel it necessary to exceed this limit should be offered a preventive treatment.

Angeliki Vgontzas, MD, Instructor, Department of Neurology, Harvard Medical School; Associate Neurologist, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women's Hospital/Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

Angeliki Vgontzas, MD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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