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Can being startled trigger a migraine?

Recently a reader on migraine.com made a comment online about how one of her surefire migraine triggers is being startled.  This struck a chord with me, as I am infamous in my family and friend circles for being startled easily, and it’s hard for me to physically calm down after having a big scare (even if I was startled or scared by the silliest of things).

I remember a few years ago being in the car with a friend and getting *this* close to being hit by a car that ran a red light.  I gasped, slammed on the brakes, and was lucky enough to not be hit.  But it took me a long time to come down from that terrifying moment. The following describes  what it feels like when I get startled, even by the most innocuous of things. My chest seizes for a moment—there’s no pain there, but it feels like I’m living a cliche: “My heart skips a beat.” The feeling echoes a second later in my arms, making me feel for just a moment that someone has turned a switch that turns the electricity in my arms off and then back on again.  My heart pounds, and it takes me anywhere from fifteen seconds to five minutes to notice that my body is physically calm. Even if I have no logical, conscious worries, my brain reacts to big surprises as if my body was actually in real danger.

What I have never thought about—until that migraine.com reader’s comment, that is—is if being startled will trigger a migraine for me. This has prompted me to start trying to pay better attention to what happens in my body in the minutes and hours after having a big scare.

Again, let me emphasize how easily I get freaked out. In 99.5% of the cases, I laugh it off. Maybe the window open in the living room has created a draft that makes the front door slam suddenly. Perhaps I’m deep in another world, reading a book and my cell phone, perched by my head, suddenly rings loudly. Or, on a more serious note, maybe I am walking through town and a car avoids hitting me by mere inches. In all of those examples, the above-described reactions take place in my body. I pay attention at the time but don’t really think much about the situations after my heart rate goes back to normal.

Now I really want to pay closer attention to see if a migraine emerges as a result of being startled.

What do you guys think? Have you ever had a migraine triggered by this? If so, how did you figure it out?  Do you have any tips or tricks that could help the rest of us determine if this is a trigger? (Many of us are already recording our sleep times, what we ate/drank, etc. in our migraine diaries/journals—should we also mark down every time we get freaked out/startled?)

As always, thanks for reading, and any insight/feedback is more than welcome.

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

Comments

  • Neely McCormick
    5 years ago

    I have PTSD and my startle mechanism can make my pulse go from 0 to 60 in seconds and my head instantly begins to throb. Beta-blockers are a regular part of my migraine regimen and an additional BB will help bring me down and lessen the pounding.

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Thanks Janet, I was most appreciative of the care I received at the podiatrist’s office. I can usually “push back” the headache for awhile and carry on (but pay for it later with increased pain), but the vertigo is a different matter all together.
    I know there’s not much one can do to eliminate startle responses, but I do hope I helped at least one person figure out why they always get a migraine when they go to the dentist!

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    I was driving to the podiatrist yesterday (couldn’t find a ride) because I was pretty sure I had a stress fracture in my left foot (I do). My migraine was at #7 when I set out.
    Along the way a car, hidden from my view behind a large truck, eased out into my lane trying to see past the truck in order to make a turn. I was forced to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. Huge adrenaline rush. I’m shaking, head is now at 10. By the time I reached the doctor’s office I had such vertigo I felt like I was going to pass out. I hadn’t had that earlier. Although I started out at a well functioning 7, that startle reflex really did a number on me. The receptionist took one look at me and put me in to a room where I could rest, brought me cold water, and turned the lights off. She remembered I had migraines even though I hadn’t been there in two years, plus she said I looked so pale she actually said I looked like I was going to pass out. Luckily the vertigo passed and I was able to drive home safely, take some Migranal, and cuddle my ice pack.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    What a harrowing day! Thank goodness for keen, observant caregivers who take the time to do simple things (dark room, cool water) to help you feel just a little bit better. I’m so thankful you weren’t in an accident on the road and hope you’re migraine-free today.

    I appreciate your response!

    -Janet G.
    “The Migraine Girl”

  • Ann
    5 years ago

    I have had this startle reflex as far as I can remember. The littlest happening can trigger it. My husband has learned to announce his presence whenever my back is turned from him so I don’t scream and jump 20 feet in the air. I never noticed that it preceded a migraine and feel strongly that it doesn’t. My son also has it and he has never suffered from migraines. I don’t know what to attribute it too. I do have an autoimmune disease but never saw it mentioned in conjunction with it.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    That’s fascinating. Do you consider yourself as someone who’s “on edge” in general? Do you find yourself to be calm apart from these startled moments?

    Thanks for your feedback–with your being startled so easily, I’m so thankful being startled isn’t a trigger for you.

    Take care,
    Janet G.
    “The Migraine Girl”

  • Traci
    5 years ago

    Being startled makes my head hurt worse, instantly.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    Gosh, if it happens when I already am getting (or have) a migraine, I am just toast.

  • Lifetime_Migraine_Sufferer
    5 years ago

    Janet! I always love your posts; you tackle many of the same issues the whole migraine.com community struggles with!! Being startled often and easily are well documented symptoms of PTSD, and what you described about your recent brush with what could have been a very severe car accident is enough to put you in a state of hyper-vigilance. Have you ever thought you might have PTSD? It very well could just be the adrenaline rush that others have pointed out but I know that we migraineurs tend to hold onto a lot of emotional baggage. I am a PTSD survivor from many years of childhood abuse, and I get startled easily and often so I’ve learned to be proactive with daily breathing exercises to keep me in a more relaxed state. Its taken a lot of practice and being very self-aware to calm my fears. It’s been years since my childhood, yet I’m still affected by it everyday. I get triggered by the strangest things that can put me in a state of ominous/impending doom and fright; then the migraine comes on hard. Everyone is different and one experience can cause PTSD for one individual, and for another – it just rolls off their back. I hope you don’t have PTSD, but if you do, it could be transient if it’s from just one experience. I wish you well with fighting your migraines. I seem to be losing the fight with mine, and I’m so tired of dealing with them in general. I really think if it was possible to be “cured” of PTSD it would eliminate one huge migraine trigger for me! *hugs*

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    Lifetime_Migraine_Sufferer:

    First off, thank you for your kind words. I’m glad my posts resonate with you; it means a lot to hear from readers.

    I don’t *think* I’m dealing with any PTSD, but that’s something to think about for sure. I will pay better attention to what startles me and when and see if there may be some kind of connection. I was freaked out in the car for a few months–if anyone pulled up in the lane behind me, I braced for a huge impact. But those fears have mostly dissipated.

    Thank you for sharing that you’re a survivor of childhood abuse. I’m so sorry. It’s really great that you are able to talk about your emotions so clearly–I’m sure that that, along with your daily breathing exercises, helps keep a number of migraine attacks at bay.

    I’ll be thinking of you and hope you’re feeling well. Keep on keepin’ on.

    -Janet G.
    “The Migraine Girl”

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Hello! Of course being startled can cause a migraine! It’s the adrenaline rush you get from being startled ( fight/flight response) that causes the migraine.
    Do you ever get a migraine after a dental appointment? Ask your dentist to give you an anesthetic without epinephrine. Epi always makes my migraine worse, and really all it does is make the anesthetic work more quickly. If you tell your dentist it gives you migraines, he or she will be happy to wait the extra 15 minutes.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thanks so much for the comments, @Jules2dl. Sorry it took me awhile to get back to you on this. You make me feel a little less crazy! I am going to be more vigilant in paying attention to what startles me and keep track of what the migraine attack (if it happens) is like. I appreciate this!

    -Janet G.
    “The Migraine Girl”

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Forgot to say, the migraine from being startled will usually be instantaneous. It would develop rapidly along with the rush of adrenaline, at least that has been my experience. It wouldn’t be the type that would come along hours after the event, making it difficult for you to make the connection. When your heart starts pounding, your head would be pounding right along with it. That may not be every ones experience, but it is mine. Unfortunately, when my heart stops pounding, my head does not. *sigh*

  • Brian in TN
    5 years ago

    Definitely worth entering into a journal. I’ve never had a startle event trigger a migraine, I don’t think, but I do notice that the way I react to being startled is drastically different when I’m having a migraine. Frequently instant rage especially if someone is laughing about it. Definitely elevated fight or flight response.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Brian in TN!

    Janet G.
    “The Migraine Girl”

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