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10 Ways Migraine is Not “Just a Headache”

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.

1. Pain Severity

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.

2. Pain Location

Most people with migraine (59%)1 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.

3. Pain Worsens With Movement

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.

4. Nausea & Vomiting

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). 73% of people with migraine have nausea and 29% 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.

5. Sense Hypersensitivity

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.

6. So Many Other Symptoms

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 readers reported.

7. Migraines Last for Hours or Days

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.

8. OTC Painkillers Are Often Ineffective

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 of 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.

9. Disability and Disease Burden

During a migraine attack, 91% of people can’t function normally1 and 53.7% report severe impairment or the need for bed rest.2 The World Health Organization has found that migraine is the most disabling neurological illness by far and it ranks in the top 20 most disabling medical conditions worldwide.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

10. The Stigma

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 last year 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


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Lipton, R. B., Stewart, W. F., Diamond, S., Diamond, M. L., & Reed, M. (2001). Prevalence and burden of migraine in the United States: data from the American Migraine Study II. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 41(7), 646-657.
  2. Lipton, R. B., & Bigal, M. E. (2005). Migraine: epidemiology, impact, and risk factors for progression. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 45(s1), S3-S13.
  3. The American Council for Headache Education with Constantine, L.M. & Scott, S. (1994). Migraine: the complete guide. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
  4. Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (IHS. (2013). The international classification of headache disorders, (beta version). Cephalalgia, 33(9), 629-808.
  5. Steiner, T. J., Stovner, L. J., & Birbeck, G. L. (2013). Migraine: the seventh disabler. cephalalgia, 33(5), 289-290.
  6. Menken, M., Munsat, T. L., & Toole, J. F. (2000). The global burden of disease study: implications for neurology. Archives of neurology, 57(3), 418-420.
  7. Brandes, J. L. (2008). The migraine cycle: patient burden of migraine during and between migraine attacks. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 48(3), 430-441.
  8. Young, W. B., Park, J. E., Tian, I. X., & Kempner, J. (2013). The stigma of migraine. PloS one, 8(1), e54074.


  • litoria76
    2 years ago

    I’m chronic. I just had one last 16 days straight. Then I had two days of no pain but now it’s back… Such is my life:'(

  • Susan Cummings Nawazelski
    5 years ago

    I have been having migraines since I was 19. The most recent bout started on October 1st. I have now been out of work for about 1 week and a half and will start short term disability next week. I have a headache every day, I am in a fog, I cannot function properly. I sleep most of the day, my head hurts, my eyes burn. I just can’t function. I am waiting on an appointment with a headache specialist but that is still 3 weeks away – I don’t hold out much hope for what they will do for me. I do not want Botox injections. I don’t know if I can continue my full time office position – the stress is too much. Has anyone gone on full time disability because of this condition? These articles could have been written by me.

  • laalaa81
    5 years ago

    I’ve been on disability for the past year and a half. It will be 4 years in march since my migraine became chronic with intense daily pain. As hard as it is try not to give up hope susan there are so many treatments out there some of which can be taken simultaneously.

  • Susan Cummings Nawazelski
    5 years ago

    I just received a nerve block in the emergency room yesterday and it helped a little. I felt good last night and this morning. The headache has returned. It felt so good to feel good. 🙁

  • Brian in TN
    6 years ago

    The stigma of migraines tends to vary with the occupation involved. I hope that the military is the worst, having experienced it myself I cannot imagine worse treatment. First one has to be willing to tell coworkers and superiors that they simply cannot accomplish their job because of a condition that has few exterior symptoms, an experience almost all migraineurs are familiar with, but in the military you have to raise this issue at several levels. Once I convinced my local command that the condition was too severe to ignore, simply to be seen by an MD, I was told I would undergo 6 months of Amitriptyline therapy before I would be allowed to see a neurologist. Once I withstood that nightmare I was greeted by the neurologist with the same question every time I saw him: “Do you want to stay in the Navy?” My experience over the next 2 years was consistent, only those who had been abused by the military medical system had any sympathy, nearly everyone I knew at my original command (my 3rd sea command in a row) believed I was a liar and malingerer willing to do anything to get out of the Navy with an honorable discharge. Apparently the unspoken rule in the military, confirmed with several other veterans, is to belittle the other members of the workgroup to ensure that anyone willing to admit they are too (weak, sick, etc.) to perform must be considered a traitor to the command, service, country and that all members of the workgroup are at least partially responsible for this failure. Ensuring that placing your health above “the Mission” is simply unacceptable – maybe that has something to do with the frighteningly high suicide rate among active duty military. The military spends huge effort building up the brotherhood ideal that every member is absolutely necessary, until you are willing to admit that you simply cannot physically contribute to the “Mission”, then you become the enemy, someone who by wasting the time of everyone at the command has actively detracted from the “Mission”. The military medical experience was so wonderful that I gave up a $7,000.00 tax return and waited 15 years to apply for VA medical benefits.

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