Migraine Without Aura - The Basics Updated

Patient Expert
Medically Reviewed

Migraine is a genetic neurological disease. For consistency in diagnosing and classifying head pain disorders, the _International Headache Society'_s International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd Edition (ICHD-3), is generally accepted as the "gold standard." This provides standardization of diagnoses, providing guidance and reducing confusion.

Because there are several different types of migraine, and some forms involve different genetic markers, some researchers theorize that it may actually be more than one disease. For now, however, under ICHD-3, migraine is divided into two major subtypes, migraine without aura (MWOA) and migraine with aura (MWA). There is a single classification under migraine without aura, the most common form of migraine.

In MWOA, a migraine attack can consist of up to three phases:

  1. Prodrome
  2. Headache Phase
  3. Postdrome

The Prodrome
The prodrome (sometimes called preheadache or premonitory phase) may be experienced hours or even days before a migraine attack. The prodrome may be considered to be the migraineur's "yellow light," a warning that a migraine is imminent. For the 30 to 40 percent of migraineurs who experience prodrome, it can be very helpful because it allows them to know a migraine is coming. For migraineurs who experience prodrome, it makes a solid case for keeping a migraine diary and being aware of one's body. For information about the prodrome and its potential symptoms, see Recognizing the Migraine Prodrome.

The Headache
The headache phase is generally the most debilitating part of a migraine attack. It's effects are not limited to the head only, but affect the entire body. The pain of the headache can range from mild to severe. It can be so intense that it is difficult to comprehend by those who have not experienced it. There are many possible symptoms of the headache phase. You can read more about them in Anatomy of a Migraine.

A MWOA attack can skip the headache phase. In that case, it's described as "acephalgic" or "silent" migraine without aura; the diagnosis is still migraine without aura.

The Postdrome
Once the headache phase is over, the migraine attack may or may not be over. The postdrome (sometimes called postheadache) follows immediately afterward. The majority of migraineurs take hours to fully recover, some take days. Many people describe postdrome as feeling "like a zombie" or "hung-over." These feelings are often attributed to medications taken to treat the migraine, but may well be caused by the migraine itself. In cases where prodrome and/or aura are experienced without the headache phase, the postdrome may still occur. You can read more about the postdrome and its potential symptoms in Anatomy of a Migraine.

Some differences in children:

  1. In children and adolescents (under 18) attacks may last 2-72 hours.
  2. The headache of a migraine attack is commonly bilateral (on both sides) in young children; an adult pattern of unilateral pain usually emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood.
  3. In young children, photophobia and phonophobia may be inferred from observing their behavior.
  4. The headache of a migraine attack is usually frontotemporal (front and sides, toward the front, of head). Occipital (lower back of the head) headache in children, whether unilateral or bilateral, is rare and calls for caution in diagnosing as many cases are attributable to structural lesions. (See diagram.)

It's important to note that you can have more than one type of migraine. It's also not unusual to experience both headaches and migraines. In fact, tension-type headaches can be a migraine trigger.

If your doctor has diagnosed you with "migraines," ask for a more definitive diagnosis. That will make it easier for you to find information and learn about migraine disease as it applies to you.

ICHD-3 classification criteria for migraine without aura is:>** 1.1 Migraine without aura**

Previously used terms: Common migraine, hemicrania simplex

Description: Recurrent headache disorder manifesting in attacks lasting 4-72 hours. Typical characteristics of the headache are unilateral location, pulsating quality (throbbing or varying with the heartbeat), moderate or severe intensity, aggravation by routine physical activity and association with nausea and/or photophobia and phonophobia .

Diagnostic criteria:

  1. At least 5 attacks fulfilling criteria B-D
  2. Headache attacks lasting 4-72 hours (untreated or unsuccessfully treated)
  3. Headache has at least two of the following characteristics:
    1. unilateral location
    2. pulsating quality
    3. moderate or severe pain intensity
    4. aggravation by or causing avoidance of routine physical activity (e.g., walking or climbing stairs)
  4. During headache at least one of the following:
    1. nausea and/or vomiting
    2. photophobia and phonophobia
  5. Not better accounted for by another ICHD-3 diagnosis.

More Helpful Articles - Our Basics Series:


1 Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version)." Cephalalgia. July 2013 vol. 33 no. 9 629-808   10.1177/0333102413485658.

2 Young, William B., MD; Silberstein, Stephen D., MD. "Migraine and Other Headaches." AAN Press. St. Paul. 2004.

3 Calhoun, Anne H., MD; Ford, Sutapa, PhD; Millen, Cori, DO; Finkel, Alan G., MD; Truong, Young, PhD; Nie, Yonghong, MS. "The Prevalence of Neck Pain in Migraine." Headache. Published Online: Jan. 20, 2010.

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