Vascular Migraine: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment And Complications

Migraines are debilitating headaches that can leave a person feeling rundown and unable to continue their day-to-day activities. Getting to the bottom of why your migraines are happening can help you prevent them and undergo the appropriate treatment to combat the symptoms. 

Vascular migraines, also known as vascular headaches, are linked to an individual's vascular structures. Knowing the characteristics of a vascular migraine and how you can treat it can help you try to get relief sooner rather than later.

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What is a vascular migraine?

When a person thinks of their blood vessels, they consider the health of their circulatory system and blood flow from their heart throughout their body. Blood vessels play essential roles within your body, and any changes, even temporary, can cause health problems or symptoms that can affect how you feel and act.

The sudden dilation and/or inflammation of blood vessels in the head area, such as the scalp and neck, can cause an individual to suffer migraine symptoms, often referred to as a vascular migraine.

Why is this an outdated term?

In today's healthcare landscape, the term vascular migraine is less commonly used by medical professionals. Some doctors and other providers that have been around for a long time may still use the term occasionally. However, it is not the preferred term when describing certain migraines or headache disorders. 

In the past, many migraine conditions were thought to originate when blood vessels became enlarged due to certain triggers. This caused migraine and most headaches to be classified as vascular. However, in recent years, scholars have turned their focus from the vascular system to other mechanisms, such as those related to the neuronal factors, to explain headaches and migraine episodes.

While headaches can happen as a reaction to your blood vessel dilation or constriction, other causes can trigger a similar type of headache, justifying the change in terminology. Vascular changes can lead to migraines and headaches in some instances, but they are not the sole possible cause of these conditions. There are other potential causes and more accurate terms to describe the headache type you are experiencing.

Vascular migraine was a catch-all term used to describe many different headaches, making it difficult to understand what type of headaches an individual is dealing with. In reality, there is a wide range of migraine or headache disorders that fall under this category.

Knowing which type of headache you are suffering from can influence your doctor's treatment approach to helping you best manage the condition.

What are the types of vascular migraines?

What was once simply described as a vascular migraine is now an expansive list of headache conditions. Each of these types has links to the functioning of your blood vessels and your body's reaction when they dilate beyond what is normal for you. The following are headache conditions examples associated with vascular changes most commonly experienced by individuals.


A gradually developing headache often can occur through four stages and causes incapacitating pain and discomfort for the individual. Migraines can occur occasionally or in a chronic fashion.  

Exertional headache

Physical exertion due to exercise, work, or other sudden increases in physical activity can affect your vascular system, leading to a headache immediately following the physical activity.

Cluster headache

Sudden and severe headaches can frequently happen within a short period. These headaches often affect a particular area of the head and can last for up to a couple of hours during each occurrence.

Toxic headache

Headaches that occur due to illness or intoxication of the body are called toxic headaches. Examples of causes of these headaches can include a fever, infection, virus, or toxic substances in your environment.

Other vascular headaches

If you experience a severe and sudden onset of a headache that leaves you unable to function, you may have an underlying vascular condition. These thunderclap-type headaches can be dangerous and indicate a severe health issue such as a stroke or other arterial complication that requires immediate medical assistance.

What are the symptoms?

The most common characteristic and description of individuals experiencing a headache of vascular origin are that the pain and discomfort are throbbing. However, as the term vascular headache can entail several different migraine or headache conditions, the symptoms felt from one individual to another can be very different.

A vascular headache can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours or days, making you try to find relief and comfort desperately.

Keep in mind that vascular headaches can describe migraines, cluster headaches, and other conditions which can develop and exhibit symptoms differently from one another.

Symptoms of vascular type headaches can include:

  • Pounding or stabbing pains that can be localized to one side of the head

  • Watery or irritated eyes

  • Runny nose or congestion

  • Nausea which may also include gastrointestinal distress

  • Visual disturbances

  • Light sensitivity as well as high sensitivity to smells and sounds

  • Feelings of anxiety

  • Pain that originates from physical activity

  • Worsening pain that interferes with day-to-day activities

What causes vascular migraine?

Figuring out why a migraine or other type of vascular headache is happening can be complicated and involve some cooperation between you and your medical providers to try to pinpoint the cause. It may not be just one trigger that causes your headaches but a combination of factors for some people. Many external factors can make you more susceptible to migraines and headaches, as well as genetic factors.

Potential causes or triggers of vascular migraines can include:

  • Stress

  • Environmental allergies

  • Drinking alcohol or smoking

  • Food intolerances or allergies

  • Nervous system-related issues

  • Hormonal changes

  • Lack of quality sleep

  • Weather conditions

  • Lack of hydration or proper nutrition

  • Sudden changes in physical activity or level of exertion

How is a vascular migraine treated?

Treatment for vascular migraine conditions can vary, and the best course of action for you will be laid out in the treatment plan set out by your doctor. For many individuals, the focus of managing their vascular migraines will be on how to prevent them. 

Avoiding triggers and stressors agents can help prevent the debilitating aftermath of dealing with a migraine or vascular headache. This can mean making lifestyle changes once you are able to narrow down why your migraines might be happening. Dietary changes, gradual exercise, better sleep, and avoidance of certain substances or environmental factors can help you improve your quality of life and reduce the occurrence or recurrence of these conditions.

Even when a person does their absolute best at eliminating the potential causes of their headaches, they may still occur. While you may have some indications of your headaches' root triggers, you may also have unknown factors that you cannot account for or prevent.

When a vascular migraine does happen, there are some steps you can take and treatments available through your doctor that can help you manage the condition and get you back to feeling better as quickly as possible.

Steps you can take to treat a vascular migraine include:

When to visit your doctor

Any time you are suffering from recurrent debilitating headaches that affect your life, you should seek advice from your doctor. Set up an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms and discuss how you may be able to prevent and treat these headaches in the future. Often, individuals will continue to deal with the discomfort of frequent vascular migraines and headaches when there is help available.

While you may not be able to cure or prevent all vascular migraines, you may lessen their frequency by increasing your understanding of them. 

The lowdown

The headaches and migraines that can be referred to as vascular in nature can disrupt your day-to-day life and ability to work and meet other responsibilities. If you find yourself suffering from frequent headaches, contact a doctor to help you manage and rule out any potentially serious causes of your migraines.

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