“My head will hurt so badly that laying on a pillow is painful.”
Migraines are incredibly common, debilitating, frustrating—and misunderstood. People who have never had a migraine often mistakenly believe they are just a “bad headache,” and they may have a hard time fully sympathizing with a loved one who frequently needs to cancel plans due to their symptoms.
HealthiNation asked eight people who suffer from recurring or chronic migraines to describe their symptoms. These descriptions provide a window into the migraine experience, and what makes them so debilitating.
“When I have a migraine attack, it is so debilitating. I usually start with a slight headache over one or both eyes. The pain increases quite quickly and, alongside that, I have blurred vision. There has been a time when I have lost my vision completely, which was extremely scary.
“The other—and I feel this is the worst of my symptoms—is the nausea. It stops me in my tracks and I am unable to move around as all smells make it worse, so I have to move to a darker room where there are no aromas that will irritate it more.”
– Bridgette N. (Illinois)
“In the days before a migraine I would slur words and mix up sentences. Particularly bad migraines would persist for five to seven days with sound, light, smell, taste, and temperature sensitivity. Throughout this time I would often be confined to bed for the duration and even sheets made of heavier fabric would cause irritation on the skin.
“I eventually reached a point of displaying signs of mini strokes before the worst episodes. I fell down the stairs a few times because I would lose control of motor functions on the left side.”
– Jeremiah S. (United Kingdom)
“I have suffered from chronic migraines for over seven years, which ended my career as a litigator. My symptoms vary. They can feel like having a head full of chirping crickets [or] having hot ketchup squirt from the back of my neck all the way up to the top of my head.”
– Sonia F. (New Jersey)
“My head will hurt so badly that laying on a pillow is painful. I can feel every lump and bump in it. I feel localized throbbing behind my left eye that spreads out through my whole head. Light is painful, and loud noise actually makes my stomach hurt. I will feel general nausea as well, with light and sound making it worse.”
– Amber C. (California)
Gripped by a Vice
“The best way to describe it is as though I’m having stomach cramps but in my brain. It’s not an acute pain but a dull, always present, soul-sucking feeling of discomfort. It just drains you after a few hours.
“Another presentation I have been getting feels as though my eyeballs are being gripped by a vice and pressure is ever increasing. My eyes are particularly sensitive to light before and during a migraine.”
– Daniel C. (New York)
“Sometimes, my migraines have warning signs. These may begin with an aura: Lights, blurring into “tracers,” appear in my vision. My mood also swings toward irritability. Although I don’t often notice this immediately, my partner does!
“Once my migraine arrives, it can feel like a sharp needle stabbing into my temple, repeatedly, like a heartbeat of pain, pulsing on the side of my head. Even the softest lights can feel painfully blinding and the quietest sounds can hurt my ears.”
– Lynn C. (Massachusetts)
A Knife in the Neck
“I’m always more comfortable in the quietest, darkest room with tons of blankets and layers of socks on. I can’t always get “comfortable” even when I try to sleep it off. Left side, right side, my back—they’re all the wrong choice.
“If you told me someone had a knife in my neck or skull during my migraines, I’d believe you. If you told me holding a handstand for an hour would make it go away, I’d find a way to do it.
“It stops you completely. You can’t work, think, eat, and sometimes you can’t make it go away for days. It’s an incredibly helpless feeling. The worst part? It’s all happening in my head, behind closed doors where no one can see.”
– Brittany H., LMBT (North Carolina)
“I started having migraine attacks one week before my junior year of high school. They would hit me like a ton of bricks and occur almost daily. I’d have to leave school early as migraine took over my life. I had trouble finding something that worked for me. Migraine became who I was, which wasn’t living.”
– Ellie W. (Connecticut)
If migraines are controlling your life, talk to a doctor. You may benefit from new treatment options to treat or prevent migraines, and you can take back control of your life.
Acute treatment of migraine in adults. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on May 22, 2020 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/acute-treatment-of-migraine-in-adults.)
Pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of migraine in adults. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on May 22, 2020 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/pathophysiology-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis-of-migraine-in-adults.)Preventive treatment of migraine in adults. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on May 22, 2020 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/preventive-treatment-of-migraine-in-adults.)