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Migraine is not invisible!

We’ve all heard migraine described as an “invisible illness”, but to the experienced eye, migraine isn’t invisible at all. Even when we actively try to hide it, there are tiny visible cues if someone knows what to look for.

  • “The look”
    Fellow migraineurs can always recognize it. It’s that telltale expression we all get. To outsiders, it looks like a scowl, but we know better. It’s that squint-scowl-wince-try-not-to-puke look. Our eyes get that “blank stare” look and pupils may become smaller as we reflexively try to block out the light.
  • Pale skin
    We lose that healthy rosy glow. No amount of make-up can truly hide that ghost-white migraine mask. We can become so pale that others think we are going into shock.
  • Popping and/or stretching the neck
    We do this without thinking when the early warning neck stiffness sets in.
  • Closing and/or rubbing the eyes
    Light hurts, so we automatically take mini-breaks. Our eyes get sore just from being open. If we must stay awake, we compromise by giving ourselves a little reprieve.
  • Rubbing the forehead and temples
    We just can’t help it. No matter how hard we try to disguise our pain, this instinctive behavior is a dead giveaway, especially if it’s one-sided.
  • Vomiting
    Yeah, there’s really no way to hide this ugly reality.
  • Yawning
    This usually starts well in advance of the pain, but can continue throughout the migraine attack.  We’re not really sleepy. It’s just an involuntary reflex that’s part of the attack.
  • Sweating
    The pain can trigger cold sweats or hot flashes even if we are trying to hide the truth of an attack.
  • Sound aversion
    Complaints about noise, others talking too loudly, music playing too loudly, etc. are dead giveaways that a migraine attack is in progress.
  • Word loss
    We can’t think straight. We lose our train of thought and have difficulty following a conversation. We struggle to find the words to express our thoughts.
  • Garbled, incoherent speech
    Sometimes the words just don’t come out right.
  • Paralysis
    For those who have hemiplegic migraines, the signs are even more obvious.  The face might droop on one side, speech is slurred, and one side of the body might become completely paralyzed.

Let’s challenge the idea that migraine is “invisible” by educating others about the signs to watch for. Can you think of other visible signs of a migraine attack?

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.


  • DianeZ
    5 years ago

    Thank you for this article! Like Cindyd, I too am blessed with a great boss who can often tell when I’ve got a migraine…and makes sure I go home if I need to. I suspect he is empathetic since he himself suffers from them. His wife even installed a light dimmer switch in the front office for me, so that when I feel one coming on I can turn the lights down to almost non-existent instead of having to wear sunglasses inside. Taking my medicine as soon as I feel the migraine coming, dimming the lights and putting an ice pack on the back of my neck will often help downgrade it to just a headache instead of progressing to a full-blown migraine. A friend at my water aerobics class could tell one night when I came to class that I was in postdrome–she described my eyes as looking “weak.”
    I also have to take my contacts out and switch to glasses, as I can’t stand having the contacts in during that time. I never thought of fiddling with my hair as a sign, but reading the comments makes me think it might be one as I have long hair and will often take it down if it is up or even pull on it to help relieve scalp and neck pain. Again, thank you so much for this article and the enlightening comments!

  • Kippieloo
    5 years ago

    I’m so glad that I was referred to this website! I’ve always felt I was alone in the world when it came to my migraines. Many of the people that I worked with over the years hinted that I was shirking on the job or overstating my headaches. But those who knew me well could tell, before I could, when I was coming down with one.
    Thanks for listing the symptoms – I thought it they were singular to me. Especially the garbled, incoherent speech. My children can tell, over the phone, if I’m suffering – even though I try to hide it by enunciating my words.
    My face swells and my eyes are bloodshot. I look like I’m having a hangover – without benefit of the drinking, since alcohol can be a trigger for me. I look really, really scary!
    I’ve noticed lately that my gait is off, I stumble and am dizzy when in the throes of a migraine attack.
    I’ve always said that my hair hurts!
    For me, one of the first signs that an attack is imminent – my eyeglasses weigh so heavily on my nose that I have to take them off.
    I’ve had a number of people comment over the years that I lean my head to the left and hunch that shoulder just before a migraine.
    Oh, and my face turns a slight shade of green.
    I realize, with my own self, that all 5 senses are heightened when I’m getting, and suffering with a migraine.
    Thanks for making me feel like I’m not a little crazy!

  • Piglet
    5 years ago

    Wearing sunglasses indoors. Had to change offices because the fluorescent in the hallway was making a low-level noise with accompanying vibration. I become like theprincess kept awake by the pea under her mattress. I think she had migraines.

  • onehsancare
    5 years ago

    I don’t know what the look is, but my sisters can take one look at me and say, “You’ve got a migraine, don’t you?” They can look at a photo of me and say the same thing.

    I know I get stupid and lose words.

  • Jill
    5 years ago

    This is a great article. My husband can always tell when I am suffering the most. I migraine every day to some extent. On those days when I’m the worst my right eye (mine are always on the right side temple and head) will almost shut entirely. My face become a little swollen and I can’t tolerate noise or smells of almost any kind. I try to keep my hands and feet warm as this seems to ease the pain a little. I also have trouble speaking correctly and sometimes can’t remember simple words. My husband is very supportive and that helps a lot in my fight to get better.

  • Beth
    5 years ago

    Thanks again for a wonderful article!! My big give away signs are…I can’t stand the sound of our wood burner fan, my eye and nose water, I get super emotional, so much so that I cry at the drop of a hat. If I’m walking around, I may stumbled.

  • cindyd
    5 years ago

    Great article . . . this was me today. Woke up at 2:30 a.m. and took medication because the headache woke me up. Laid there until time to go to work. Got ready for work and went in and when my boss came in, he began talking to me and I turned around slowly to look at him and he backed up and said, “You have another migraine, don’t you!?” Then he proceeded to chew me out for coming to work because I have FMLA but we are so busy . . . also when he left to go home before I did, he threatened me that I better not come in tomorrow if I am feeling like this. So appreciative of him understanding because I have not even worked for him for a year but he already can tell when I have a headache by physical appearance and other things. Well, he has been a Sergeant for the Department of Corrections in CA for the last 30 years so he is very observant of people and their behaviors . . .but I am grateful to have him for a boss anyway and for his understanding. Boy, do I need a nap.

  • Leynal
    5 years ago

    Cindyd- I feel your pain. And your boss sounds great. I am so happy you have someone like that!! Good for you- what a blessing! -Leyna

  • BethBlue
    5 years ago

    To begin, I truly appreciate your article, Tammy. It would be great if you would expand on some of the things others could do to help us when they see us suffering. In terms of observable behavior, I cannot speak for others, but this is what happens to me right before a migraine episode: My senses of smell, hearing, and taste increase exponentially. I can tell you that someone is smoking 100 yards away; that a cat has meowed down the street; or that the person who wrapped my sandwich at Panera touched an onion before they touched my bread. It helps me (from an early-warning standpoint), but it drives my family bananas! 🙂

  • Shelly
    5 years ago

    This is sooo me! Well written!

  • Homeschoolmom
    5 years ago

    Lisa, I do the same thing, and that’s what I was going to add. I take out any hair accessories and take my eyeglasses from on top of my head because I just can’t stand the sensation. I also pull my hair against the grain… It gives a moment of relief but doesn’t last, so my hair today looks like Medusa.

    I try to hold my head in different positions to get relief. I imagine it looks interesting.

    My hair is longish but once when it was very long I cut it during a bad migraine. The weight of my hair is painful.

  • Meggietye
    5 years ago

    My skin hurts so much I can’t bear my hair touching my skin…I also can’t bear the feeling a ponytail brings – a gigantic dilemma. I also remove hair accessories and all my just plain hurts too much :(. Last summer I cut 4″ off my shoulder length bob and it felt heavenly but looked an awkward length for my face and come September when my 4 mths of straight migraines stopped, I grew my hair out. I suppose I may do something similar next summer should history repeat itself but frankly I don’t really care too much. Today my eyes looked like little black dots and I was white as a sheet and my language was all over the place but there was no pain anywhere, I just felt terribly nauseated for 6 hrs. Ain’t life grand?

  • Homeschoolmom
    5 years ago

    Also sometimes my eye and nostril water on the side of the headache.

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator
    5 years ago

    You’ve touched on this a bit–but fidgeting for me I think is a sign. Especially fidgiting with my hair (changing my ponytail to let me hair loose and then back up into a ponytail again).

    Also many people report puffy eyes with an impending attack. Especially on the side they get the pain.

    Good article, Tammy.

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