10 Ways Migraine is Not “Just a Headache”
Last updated: July 2023
Migraine is a neurological disorder that’s largely inherited, and migraine attacks are terribly painful and often disabling. Sadly, though, migraine is frequently dismissed as “just a headache,” and migraineurs are told to take an aspirin and get over it. But those of us with migraine aren’t making a big deal over a measly headache. Here are 10 characteristics that separate migraine from a run-of-the-mill headache.
A typical “bad headache” has nothing on the pain of a migraine. Migraine pain is most often described as throbbing or pulsating. Depending on the person, it can feel like one’s head is literally about to explode or collapse on itself. Some people have sharp stabbing or burning pain. And many have some combination of these types of pain.
Most people with migraine have pain on only one side of the head, but many have it on both sides. Those with pain throughout the head can also have more intense pain on one side than the other. The pain can be located anywhere on the head, including in the eyes, sinuses, roof of mouth, ears, or face.
Migraine pain worsens with movement. Rolling over in bed can be excruciating. Some people will forgo getting up to get medication or water or to go to the bathroom because walking is too painful.
There’s a common misconception that people vomit because the pain is so bad, but the nausea is a symptom separate from the pain (some people even have migraine attacks with severe nausea and no head pain). According to a study conducted in 2013, 90% of people with migraine have nausea, and 70% vomit.2 Vomiting is never pleasant, but when any movement can worsen the pain, it is nothing short of horrific. Nausea without vomiting is nothing to scoff at. People with chronic migraine can lose unhealthy amounts of weight because they are too nauseated to eat.
Lights are too loud, sounds are too loud, odors are too strong, and touch is irritating during a migraine. Any of these sensory inputs can actually cause physical pain.
The primary symptoms people associate with migraine – pain, nausea, vomiting, sense hypersensitivity – are only the most common. Here are a handful of examples from the very long list of possible migraine symptoms: vertigo, difficulty finding words, numbness or tingling in the face or extremities, partial paralysis, frequent urination, brain fog, changes in heart rate and blood pressure.3 And there's more, like the list of strange symptoms that Migraine.com readers reported.
A typical migraine attack lasts between four and 72 hours.4 The excruciating pain part is only one of four migraine stages. The “migraine hangover,” which happens after the worst of the symptoms pass, also includes a headache and can last for days. With chronic migraine that’s daily, one migraine attack runs into another, with no respite between attacks.
Over-the-counter painkillers, like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) are the go-to treatment for non-migraine headaches. They can be effective for some people with migraine – especially with added caffeine – but they might as well be Tic-Tacs for most of us. Prescription migraine drugs provide relief for some people, but others get no benefit from any medication.
During a migraine attack, many people can’t function normally.1 The World Health Organization has found that migraine is one of the top 5 five leading causes worldwide of years lost due to disability (YLD).5 WHO also found that “severe continuous migraine” (which some people with chronic migraine experience) is as disabling as quadriplegia.6
Even between migraine attacks, a patient isn’t necessarily symptom-free and may experience anxiety about when their next migraine will occur and how severe it will be. Those with chronic migraine may not return to normal neurological function between migraine attacks.7
Partly because migraine is perceived as “just a headache,” people with migraine face a huge stigma in addition to having disabling symptoms. A study published in 2013 found migraine to be as stigmatized as epilepsy and people with migraine reported more difficulty working than those with epilepsy. Researchers also found that people with chronic migraine face a greater stigma than those with epilepsy or episodic migraine.8
Are the family and friends you will be seeing this holiday season understanding about migraine?