A migraine is not just a bad headache

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I have suffered from migraines since my late teens. Mine are hormonal and they were first triggered when I started taking the combined contraceptive pill. Oestrogen is my arch enemy.

At their worst, I suffer debilitating migraines for two weeks out of my four week menstrual cycle. A migraine can feel like a living hell, and if like me, they are not relieved by any medication, they can leave you feeling desperate and alone.

I believe migraines are very misunderstood. People who have never experienced them often assume they are just bad headaches. But the truth is they are severely debilitating and disabling.

My aim with this article is to correct the many misconceptions surrounding migraines, and to describe exactly how it feels to experience a migraine attack.

In this post I’m going to concentrate on the symptoms of a migraine, and try to describe what a migraine actually feels like. But I will be writing a follow up post discussing causes, triggers and treatments, and a few things which I find help ease the many symptoms.

What is a migraine?

According to the NHS website; A migraine is a type of headache that causes an intense throbbing sensation in one area of the head. It is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound.

In general, migraine headaches are very painful. A migraine attack will typically last from 4 to 72 hours. A migraine can, however, last for several days.

The frequency of attacks varies from person to person. Some people experience migraines several times a month, others much less frequently.

There are several different types of migraine. These include: migraine with aura, migraine without aura, chronic migraine, abdominal migraine, hemiplegic migraine and menstrual migraine.

Stages of a migraine

Migraines often develop in distinct stages, although not everyone goes through all of these:

1. ‘Prodromal’ (pre-headache) stage –changes in mood, energy levels, behaviour and appetite that can occur several hours or days before an attack.

2. Aura – usually visual problems, such as flashes of light or blind spots, which can last for five minutes to an hour.

3. Headache stage – usually a pulsating or throbbing pain on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and/or extreme sensitivity to bright light and loud sounds, which can last for four to 72 hours.

4. Resolution stage – when the headache and other symptoms gradually fade away, although you may feel tired and achy for a few days afterwards.

Common symptoms of a migraine

  • Intense headache on one side of the head
  • Pain in face and neck
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • sweating
  • poor concentration
  • feeling very hot or very cold
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhoea

Symptoms of aura
About one in three people with migraines have temporary warning symptoms, known as aura, before a migraine. These include:

  • visual problems – such as seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns or blind spots
  • numbness or a tingling sensation like pins and needles– which usually starts in one hand and moves up your arm before affecting your face, lips and tongue
  • feeling dizzy or off balance
  • difficulty speaking
  • loss of consciousness – although this is unusual

What a migraine feels like for me.

Writing this post actually triggered a migraine  – sods law. I wanted to capture every detail during the attack. I find typing impossible when I have a migraine because, at first I lose my vision, and then I find it too painful to focus on a screen. So, I recorded the following on my voice recorder:

Migraines are not just bad headaches. Anyone that suffers from them will tell you they are debilitating and can completely control your life. I will now try to explain what it feels like (for me) to have a migraine.

Many people, like myself, get warning signs. I lose my peripheral vision, leaving me with tunnel vision, although I also sometimes get squiggly worms of distorted vision which dart around my eye sight. I also experience numbness in my forefinger and thumb, and my lips, a few minutes before a migraine appears. I don’t get much warning though, just a few minutes, but it is sometimes enough to get myself in bed and “prepared” for the attack.

With the warning signs comes the familiar feeling of dread that starts in the pit on my stomach and spreads throughout my body, because I know what’s coming and I’m defenceless to stop it. I instantly feel Disconnected. Disoriented. Panicky and Confused. Other people’s voices seem distant somehow.

Next comes searing and throbbing pain, usually down the left side of my face and head, I also experience stabbing pains in my eye. It feels like my head is in a vice that is being slowly tightened. The pressure build up is overwhelming, and it spreads to my face. I often feel like drilling a hole in my head just to relieve it. I overheat and sweat. Nausea and dizziness add to my confusion and distress. It feels suffocating. My tinnitus screams at me. I feel like I’m going to pass out.

I sometimes experience flashing lights, but not always. But I always become hypersensitive to everything! Noise, light, smells, touch, chemicals. I cannot tolerate any stimulus – it’s completely overwhelming.

I get extremely irritable and angry that I’m suffering this pain and no one understands how bad it is. I want to be alone and tell everyone to fuck off.

The vomiting comes next. This is unbearable because my head is already thumping. My stomach churns. Every breath is laboured.

My heart pounds loudly in my chest, head and ears. The thumping intensifies the pain and feeling of unease. My whole body feels like it’s made of lead.

My whole body stiffens up in response to the pain, this is particularly bad in my neck and shoulders. I also feel like my body is in motion, like I’m on a boat swaying at sea.

I sometimes slur my words and lose coordination, but not always. These symptoms were particularly bad when I was in my early twenties, so much so that my GP sent me up the hospital for tests because he was concerned I’d had a stroke.

I cannot function when I have a migraine, I have complete respect for anyone that can carry on their day while experiencing an attack, but for me I’m completely incapacitated.

So, I take a strong painkiller, crawl into bed and try my best to stay calm while I wait it out. I haven’t found anything that prevents a migraine attack – I’ve tried every medication available. But I do find strong painkillers and muscle relaxants knock me out so I can attempt to sleep off the migraine.

I try to lay still because every movement exaggerates the pain, but all I want to do is scream. The pressure of my head on the pillow only heightens the pain, but what other choice do I have. A migraine has the magic ability to turn the softest pillow into the hardest stone slab. It’s impossible to get comfortable.

The duration of my migraine attacks vary, from a few hours to a few days. Not knowing how long I will have to suffer, only adds to the distress I experience. But the best I can do is try to stay calm and wait for the migraine to pass.

Also, once I have had one migraine, I am more likely to have more migraines on the days that follow, and I find it hard to get this thought out of my head.

The day following a migraine, in many ways, is just as bad. I have what I call an “aftermath headache”. It feels like someone has been hammering around inside my skull. I feel bruised, and every time I turn my head I experience searing pain. And exhaustion hits me. The uncertainty of not knowing whether I’m going to have another migraine that day, triggers anxiety and panic attacks.

Migraines are not just painful and debilitating, they are also unpredictable. They can strike at any time. This fear of not knowing when they will strike and how severe they will be, can lead to anxiety. Sufferers may avoid certain situations due to the fear of a migraine occurring. Migraines can control your life.

What a migraine feels like for other sufferers

As symptoms differ from individual to individual, I wanted to show a fuller picture of people’s personal experiences with migraines. So, I reached out to my social media followers and asked them; how would you describe a migraine to someone who has never experienced one? Thank you to everyone who contributed. If you have a friend or loved one that suffers migraines please take a few minutes to read these comments, it will give you a better understanding of what a migraine feels like.

Here are some of the responses;

Twitter:

🔹“It feels as if a laser beam is drilling down from the top of my head aiming behind my right eye and a vise is squeezing both temples.” – Karen Denmark

🔹“It is sometimes so unbearable I want to hit my head very hard against the wall but I don’t do that ofc… Because maybe I am gonna have even more pai” – @Kamisolf

🔹“A migraine doesn’t always mean intense pain, it can be dizziness, vision problems among other things.” – Brenda Dorgan.

🔹“My personal experience: unbearable pain in my head/neck/shoulders – can also travel to the rest of my body. If I move, the pain goes through the roof. Dizziness/balance issues on standing. Sometimes lights/wiggly lines/blurred vision – but not always.” – @Not_Just_Tired

🔹“Sometimes it’s an intense headache, hurts to look at the light, nausea, a need to lie down with heavy eyes. Sometimes, it’s like looking through wavy water or broken glass. It can last hours or even days.” – @CarlaKCoach

🔹“It feels like you’ve been run over & kicked in the head 50 times, when you go to get up you feel so dizzy that you fall over, feel drunk” – zippy (zipster)

🔹“My head feels as though it may explode. I can’t walk, and have to crawl to the bathroom for the inevitable vomiting to start. Even the tiniest of light feels as though my eyes are being pushed into the back of my head 🤯 that doesn’t even begin to explain my hemiplegic migraines!” – Jade (@JLC31519)

🔹“Intense pain localised to one temple, nausea.  my neurologist also describes me as having ‘headacheless migraine’. Intense nausea, tiredness, tinnitus & sensitivity to light; like having a hangover that lasts days. My mum @Suebloom1 has a ‘patch’ of vision loss with her migraines.” – @Sammy_Bloom

🔹“Pain from right sinus to back of head, excruciating, nausea, vomiting, flashing lights, takes vision out. Can’t move or it throbs on top and front head, lie on floor in cool and dark until starts to ease. Co codamol helps a bit. Lasts 1-2 days, then spaced out 1-2 days. Awful.” – Its Not Ideal (@Spooky14xx)

🔹“A spike through my left temple, painful tension on the sides of my head at the jaw/ear connection, light is blinding, sound is deafening. Every light/sound feels like someone slapped my brain.” – Hannah (@violinvet)

🔹“Like my head is trying to explode and slowly coming apart with shots of pain shooting around it.” – @Samantha0

🔹“Hellish. Nightmare. Intense. Consuming. Disorientating. Piercing eye pain. Crushing. Basically, not fun!” – @invisiblymeblog

Facebook:

🔹“First I lose my vision on one side, not one eye, but if I look straight ahead I can’t see anything on the left. Then there’s a feeling of increasing pressure in my head, but no pain yet. Also a rising sense of panic. Then starting at the periphery and increasing inwards there’s intense flashing, pinpoints of light. Then the pain starts, as if my head is in a vice and being slowly compressed. By now nausea is rising and there’s nothing to do, except retire to a dark room and try to sleep. A muzzy hangover type feeling can continue for a few days post migraine.” – Tess Seren Hillier

🔹“For me it’s like being on a boat. The room spins and rocks and the nausea is like motion sickness but also like when you’ve had way too much to drink and feel like you’re going to pass out but can’t. Feel like I’m going to throw up. The pain feels like I’ve been punched in the eye and stabbed through the top of the head. I seize up, my neck goes stiff. Light is intolerable like when you’re forced to drive with the sun directly in your eyes.” – Lynsey Lou

🔹“The pain is so intense that you can’t physically move without wanting to vomit. It’s the sheer intense pressure and you can feel every single curve of the brain and every nerve. It’s like when you take a deep breath and you can’t breathe out but it’s your brain…. i know that sounds bonkers but it’s like there is extra fluid that won’t drain away.” – Louise Wilson

🔹“Feels like you are going to die, other symptoms include being sick and diarrhoea x” – Carly Swinfen

🔹“Put your head in a vice, tighten the screws, now stick a red hot poker through from one temple to the other. Get someone to band a drum constantly in your ear. Add in the worst nausea, someone kicking your stomach. Now imagine that light burns, it burns your eyes, it burns through your skull. I have no vision in my left eye, my left side is paralysed, I can’t lift my arm or feel my hand, my leg drags behind me. I can’t talk, I can’t understand what people are saying. I want to die. That’s my migraine.” – Susan Davies

🔹“my eyes hurt, my head pounds like it is being.smashed into the floor or a wall. lights hurt even daylight. you feel like you want to be sick but your body is screaming to just lay still.” – Carrie Ball

🔹“Can’t move can’t think can’t function.” – Marc Honey

Instagram:

🔹“Crushing, searing, insanity” – @milliecruise

🔹“Worse than endometriosis fuelled period pain.”@nalebrun

🔹“Debilitating pain! Pure evil!” – @georginapantano

🔹“Searing pain like a poker being stuck in my head, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and I can’t stand any light or noise. Warning signs are a normal headache, nausea and sometimes I see zigzag lights.” – @cherylteanau

🔹“Hell.” – @plainjaynemansfield

🔹“Piercing, pounding exploding head. Jaw, teeth and gums pain. Feeling and being sick. Dizziness and feeling faint – sometimes passing out. Totally debilitating.” – @justanormalbaldgirl

I hope this has given non-migraine sufferers a better understanding of how debilitating they can be. I will be writing a follow up post about migraine triggers and potential treatments. I will also include a list of things that help me personal when I have a migraine. Take care x

✔️What helps ease your migraine symptoms? Have you found any medication that helps? Do you have a migraine emergency kit that you reach for when an attack occurs?

For more personal stories, reviews, news, inspirational quotes and in-depth discussion, please head over to my Facebook page.

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  1. Jo Moss

6 Comments

  1. This is a brilliant description, thanks for sharing. Migraines are absolutely awful, my heart goes out to you

  2. I understand this post so well. Most of my migraines were hormonal too, also with the visual aura. They also lasted for about two weeks. I went through an early menopause when I was around 40, and thankfully, they settled down after that. I don’t wish an early menopause on you, but I do wish doctors could figure out how to treat your migraines better.

    1. I’m desperately waiting for the menopause. I’ve been begging for a hysterectomy for years but every doctor has refused. I went on the contraceptive injection for 7 years and my migraines disappeared- it was bliss. But sadly the injection caused me to develop osteoporosis. I’m 43, so hopefully I haven’t got too long to wait now.

  3. I suffered with migraines in my 30s.They were awful. I haven’t had them in a while. But I feel so much compassiona for those who suffer. There really is no way to explain it or for others to understand. will pin this.

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