Information for sufferers

Diagnosing Migraine

If you are getting regular headaches or other symptoms that you suspect could be migraine, it is important to see a doctor and get a proper diagnosis. Proper diagnosis of your symptoms can:

  • Give reassurance that the headaches or other symptoms are not a sign of a very serious illness;
  • Get advice on stopping, managing and treating your symptoms.

Visiting your doctor

There is no actual test to diagnose migraine. To make a firm diagnosis, a doctor uses information from two sources:

A detailed history of the headaches and/or other symptoms is taken. This history includes analysing:

  • The features of the headaches (for example, how often they happen, how severe the pain is, what symptoms go with them);
  • The effect of the headaches have on your everyday activities;
  • The family history of headaches.

A thorough examination is carried out, including a complete neurological assessment.

You may have heard of techniques such as CAT or MRI scans, where a picture is taken of your brain. Although these tests will help rule out other causes of headache, they cannot be used to diagnose migraine. Similarly, an EEG (electroencephalograph) will not help the doctor to make a correct diagnosis of migraine; nor do routine blood tests help.

When you visit your doctor to talk about your headaches, you should therefore expect to give quite detailed information about your attacks. Keeping a simple migraine diary can be very helpful. This might include details of treatment you have tried in the past which has not helped the attacks. Example migraine diaries are available on our fact sheets page.

Mixed Headaches

Are all your headaches migraine headaches? Many migraine sufferers also experience other headaches, such as tension-type or muscle contraction headaches. These other headaches need to be identified so they can be treated. Bringing these headaches under control can also lead to a drop in the number of migraine attacks you suffer.

There is a condition called ‘medication overuse headache’, that has been linked with over-using pain killers, such as paracetamol. Some patients with medication overuse have daily headache, when it is called Chronic Daily Headache, meaning headache on at least fifteen days in any one month. The term means only that the headache is frequent; it can have many causes other than medication overuse. Some medicines containing combinations of drugs with codeine or caffeine have also been strongly suspected of causing medication overuse headache. Therefore, rather than managing migraine, regular use of these drugs on more than three days a week can actually make the headaches worse. It is important to avoid over-using painkillers on more than three days a week.

Changing Headaches

A change in the pattern of your headaches might be the result of the naturally changing course of migraine. Symptoms can vary at each stage of a sufferer’s life, especially in women where hormonal changes can influence attacks. Migraine mainly affects younger people, and the condition often improves with age. However, any change in the pattern of your headaches should be checked with your doctor. This can help rule out any other causes, especially if your migraines get worse or develop unusual symptoms. See your doctor immediately if your headache patterns change while you are taking the contraceptive pill.

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