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Pulsating unilateral headache and nausea

Reviewed by Angeliki Vgontzas, MD

Charing Cross Hospital / Science Source

A 22-year-old woman presents with a pulsating unilateral headache (right side) and is very nauseated. The patient reports that since childhood, she has been prone to headaches, with no other significant medical history. Over the past year or so, the headaches have been occurring about once or twice a month, have taken on a throbbing quality, and usually last for several days without relief from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). While taking part in a clinical trial, the patient undergoes a single photon emission CT scan which shows reduced blood flow (lower left).

What is the likely diagnosis?


Basilar migraine

Chronic migraine

Chronic paroxysmal hemicrania

Hemiplegic migraine

The patient is probably experiencing migraine without aura. Migraines are a complex disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of headache, most often unilateral. These attacks are associated with symptoms related to the central nervous system. Approximately 15% of patients with migraine experience aura (temporary visual, sensory, speech, or other motor disturbances). More research is needed to determine whether migraine with and without aura are potentially different diagnostic entities.

Classic migraine is a clinical diagnosis. When patients experience migraine symptoms routinely, however, it is important to consider whether these signs and symptoms can be accounted for by another diagnosis. Neuroimaging and, less commonly, lumbar puncture may be indicated in some presentations; red flags that call for additional workup are captured in the acronym SNOOP: systemic symptoms, neurologic symptoms, onset is acute, older patients, and previous history. In addition, classic migraine should be distinguished from common headaches as well as rare subtypes of migraine. For instance, hemiplegic migraine typically presents with temporary unilateral hemiparesis, sometimes accompanied by speech disturbance, and may be inherited (familial hemiplegic migraine). Basilar migraine is another rare subtype of migraine that manifests with signs of vertebrobasilar insufficiency. Attacks of chronic paroxysmal hemicrania are unilateral (just as migraines can be in about half of all cases); they are marked by their high intensity but short duration, and are accompanied by same-side facial autonomic symptoms (eg, tearing, congestion). Such patients' history and presentation do not fulfill criteria put forth by the American Headache Society (AHS) for chronic migraine, which specify having headaches 15 or more days per month for more than 3 months, and in which on at least 8 days per month those attacks are consistent with migraine or are relieved by a triptan or ergot derivative.

Migraine management must be personalized for each patient and is often associated with a marked trial-and-error period. Migraine without aura and migraine with aura are treated via similar approaches. AHS guidelines include several medications that may be effective in mitigating migraines, including both migraine-specific agents (ergotamine, ergotamine derivatives, and lasmiditan), and nonspecific agents (NSAIDs, combination analgesics, intravenous magnesium, isometheptene-containing compounds, and antiemetics). Triptans represent first-line acute treatment for migraine, but the FDA has approved five acute migraine treatments in total: celecoxib, lasmiditan, remote electrical neuromodulation (REN), rimegepant, and ubrogepant. For moderate or severe attacks, migraine-specific agents are recommended: beyond triptans, dihydroergotamine (DHE), small-molecule calcitonin gene-related peptide receptor antagonists (gepants), and selective serotonin (5-HT1F) receptor agonists (ditans). Patients should limit medication use to an average of two headache days per week, and those who do not find relief within these parameters are candidates for preventive migraine 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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