Pain Characteristics of the Acute Migraine Attack


  • Leslie Kelman MD

  • From the Headache Center of Atlanta, Atlanta, GA.

Address all correspondence to Dr. Leslie Kelman, Headache Center of Atlanta, 5671 Peachtree Dunwoody Road, Suite 620, Atlanta, GA 30342.


Objectives.—This study describes the pain characteristics of the acute migraine attack, including time of onset, time to peak, duration, intensity, quality, aggravation by activity, as well as recurrence frequency and time to recurrence, in a tertiary care practice.

Background.—The literature documenting the characteristics of the pain of the acute attack of migraine is sparse.

Methods.—A total of 1283 migraine patients (ICHD 1.1, 1.2, 1.5.1, and ICHD 1.6 [total migraine population]) were evaluated at first visit. Headache character (throbbing, aching, pressure, stabbing scaled grade 0 to 3; 0 = none; 1 = mild; 2 = moderate; 3 = severe), intensity (for average, minimum, and maximum intensity headaches, scaled 0 to 10), lifetime duration, frequency per month, duration in minutes (for average, minimum, maximum duration headaches), time of onset of headache (morning, afternoon, evening, night, anytime), aggravation of headache with activity (scaled 0 to 3), percentage recurrence, time to recurrence, were recorded. Patients were stratified into different groups; ICHD 1.1, 1.2, and 1.5.1 (migraine) ICHD 1.1 and 1.2 (episodic migraine), ICHD 1.5.1 (chronic migraine), and ICHD 1.6 (probable migraine). Patients with unremitting daily headache were excluded.

Results.—Demographics: A total of 84.3% patients were female, and the mean age was 37.7, ranging from 13.0 to 80.5 years. Eight hundred seventy-four patients were classified as ICHD 1.1, 1.2, and 1.5.1 (migraine), 524 with ICHD 1.1 and 1.2 (episodic migraine), 350 with ICHD 1.5.1 (chronic migraine), and 409 with ICHD 1.6 (probable migraine). Study Results: Time of onset of headache was mostly in the morning in 18.7%, afternoon 13.5%, evening 4.0%, during night 9.4%, and “anytime” 54.3%, with minor differences seen in different headache types, gender, presence of aura, and headache frequency. The median time to peak of the headache was greater in migraine than probable migraine (90 minutes vs. 60 minutes; P < .01). Headache duration medians were reported as minimum of 12 hours, maximum of 48 hours with an average of 24 hours, females being greater than males in average headache (24.0 vs. 12.0; P < .01), minimum (24.0 vs. 8; P < .05), and maximum (48.0 vs. 24.0; P < .01). Only the minimum duration differed between migraine and atypical migraine (12.0 vs. 4.0; P < .01). Headache intensity medians were as follows: average intensity 7/10, minimum 4/10, and maximum 10/10, with no differences in migraine versus probable migraine, gender, or headache frequency. Headache intensity median was consistently greater in migraine episodic than chronic migraine (average 8.0 vs. 6.5, minimum 4.5 vs. 3.0, maximum 10.0 vs. 9.0, all P < .05). Headache character (greater than grade 1) was throbbing (73.5%), aching (73.8%), pressure (75.4%), and stabbing (42.6%) with significantly more throbbing in migraine than in probable migraine (73.5% vs. 63.2%; P < .01) and more aching in chronic than in episodic migraine (65.4% vs. 63.1%; P < .05). Headache increased by activity was present in 90.2% of patients, grade 1 in 13.8%, grade 2 in 30.8%, and grade 3 in 45.5% of patients. The presence of activity aggravating headache was more likely to be associated with headache triggers, maximum headache severity, longer time to 50% reduction of headache, and longer time to absent headache with triptans, and more headache-associated symptoms, and longer postdrome duration (all P < .05). Recurrence rate was 43.8% with the median time to recurrence being 8 hours. Significantly less recurrence occurred with episodic than chronic migraine (30.0% vs. 50.0%; P < .01).

Conclusions.—This study provides an in-depth description of pain features in the acute migraine attack. It was found that a significant number of patients need to be provided with the means of treating headache rapidly in at least some of their headaches and that headache recurrence needs to be addressed in a large number of patients.