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The Pain of a Migraine

As I lay as still as possible, trying to avoid exacerbating a level 8 migraine, it struck me that using the word “headache” to describe the pain of a migraine is a travesty. I have chronic migraine as well as a never-ending headache. They have as much in common as a marathon and a jog around the block.

Migraine pain varies from person to person (and from one attack to another in the same person). It can feel as if the brain is expanding and pushing on the skull, about to explode in volcanic pressure, knife-like stabbing, burning, or like a tightening vise that will cause the brain to implode. The pain is usually one-sided, though not always; many people describe localized pain plus an overall throbbing. Migraine pain can be located anywhere in the head — not just in the typical places you think of a headache, but inside or behind the eye, or in the face, teeth, roof of the mouth or ears.

The night I conceived of this post, the pain felt like a white-hot fire poker was drilling deep into my head about an inch above my left eyebrow, plus my entire head was throbbing like it was going to explode. Movement as small as rolling from my side to my back made the already excruciating pain feel like it might literally (and I do mean literally) kill me. As I write this a few days later, another migraine is creeping up. My whole head is pounding and the same fire poker is at work on my left temple, though not as hot or as deep as it was the other night.

Although the pain of a migraine is located in the head, it is not a headache! What does your migraine pain feel like? Please leave a comment and tell us about it. Let’s show people who think migraine is “just a headache” how little the two have in common.

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.


  • Jen
    6 years ago

    Wow-you are the first person I’ve come across that has constant (everyday) pain like I do! I’ve been reading up about NDPH but the “level” of pain that characterizes those “headaches” doesn’t seem to fit with the migraines I get as well.

  • tucker
    6 years ago

    Since we don’t use our wood stove, I finally got rid of the tools b/c even seeing them in the attic they made me cringe! My pain is mostly like a fire place poker stabbing from the back of my head to between my eyes. Or an axe just splitting my head right open down the middle. Those ice packs help a bit to numb it up but meds are really losing their effect. My scalp and hair hurt for days and weeks now. Hmmm, maybe Emma’s dwarf cousins are chopping trees and building fires in my head.

  • laalaa81
    6 years ago

    the best way for me to describe the pain is ‘the dwarves in my head are digging again’ or the feeling that I’m being scalped. I already have severe light sensitivity all the time but when those little dwarves get busy I can’t even open my eyes let alone move.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    6 years ago

    laalaa81 – oh boy, not exactly the “Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to work we go…” kind of dwarves.

  • Paulaff
    6 years ago

    My migraine pain usually starts at the base of my neck & travels (lately very quickly) around my head forming a band of tightening pain. The pain also spreads from the neck up to the top of my head & includes behind my ears. It throbs. I’m nauseated. I can’t think clearly. So, if I’m smart, I drop what I’m doing because it may be contributing to the pain. Computer contributes to my pain. Needless to say light & loud noise contribute; actually light can cause a migraine within minutes especially if it’s strobing. A month ago I saw a new neurologist who put me on a rather large dose of Lyrica, & instead of daily migraine, it is occasional, maybe once a week; I even went nearly 2 weeks! I’m hoping it continues to work, but realistically it is typical for my body to become used to the med & not work as well as time passes.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    6 years ago

    Paulaff – Have you thought about discussing this with your doctor so that you can have a plan in place if necessary?

  • Janet
    6 years ago so much understand migraines and I dont understand with the pain you endure that you are able to write these awesome letters for us on to read.

    For me..migraines feel like my head is in a vice…squeezing tighter and tighter. My jaw is so clenched I don’t realize it until,I release it. The dizziness, nausea coherence and throbbing are just some of what I recall. They’re are levels and the auras have resent,unchanged. They are now different colors and they float across my eye. This is all new in the last few days and since just becoming residents in Atlanta I don’t have an eye doctor yet. So I’ll be talking to some docs to find out how afraid I should be of the new colored auras traveling across my eyes…I’m use to but never rally used to the broken glass type I’ve had for 37 years…this new twist has set off an alarm.

    Again I thank you for sharing your head.

    Does anyone experience the anger and frustration with their migraines and the feeling that nobody gets what we’re going through…even our families who know us for our entire lives along with this suffering. As of late I have have no tolerance for the way family members think I’m okay cuz I walk and talk on occasion when the migraines are a 5…and I do try to hide them when they escalate…but when they hit the bell I can’t…and sometimes my husband says “how should I know how bad it got?” Hmmm after 32 years of marriage and migraines…am I wrong..shouldn’t he know???


  • Jdenny6055
    6 years ago

    I have really good luck with Peppermint Oil. I get it as an essential oil and organic. Very small amount on forehead does wonders. Do not over use. Read up pn

  • body
    6 years ago

    Love the analogies-“marathon and jog around the block”, and “puppy and a mac truck”. I go with explosive. Especially with the vomiting. In those instances I have had to hold on to my head with both hands lest it blow off. Of course, those one-sided, back of the head deals can be a nightmare as well :).

  • Diana-Lee
    6 years ago

    I couldn’t possible agree more, Kerrie!

    My migraine pain typically feels like a stabbing rod and shooting and burning pain. In different parts of my head.

    6 years ago

    It’s like someone’s got my eye in their hand and they are squeezing it tighter and tighter. One side of my jaw clamps shut and my shoulder is forced up into my ear as the pain in my shoulder and down the top of my back feel like the muscles are trying to jump out in surrender.
    But it’s not just the pain. I can be like a bear with a bad head on bad migraine days. My family knows to stay away from me on evenings like that. I know I am doing it but can’t do anything about it.

  • whtesatin
    6 years ago

    I have been the sufferer of migraines since childhood. It wasn’t until 2005 that they became chronic. After seeing multiple doctors, neurologists, pain management doctors, etc., and having a number of MRI’s, CT Scans, etc. I have finally found a Pain Management doctor who has helped me tremendously. I’m finally on the right path. I also have a neurotransmitter implanted in my head to help with the pain. I’m not pain free, I still have chronic pain, but I’m much better!

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    6 years ago

    White satin – I am so glad your treatment is helpful to you. Typically pain management doctors are not ideal for Migraineurs becaus ether tend to work to cover up symptoms instead of aborting the Migraine process itself. It often results in changing pain pathways that can make the situation worse. However, there are instances when we just don’t have other options, and living with the kind of daily pain many of us experience is not an option either. I would encourage you to continue trying to find ways of better controlling your attacks while enjoying the pain relief you are experiencing right now. Sims often work for a while, but our bodies acclaimed to them and that isn’t good if there is no other plan b.

  • DebbyJ56
    6 years ago

    I have felt like this every day for over six years. I have had migraines for 51 years, since I was five yrs old. At first they started as “sick headaches”, due to lack of knowledge back then. Then in my teens got them more often around my cycle. Gradually began at least once a week until my mid forties, more often. When I hit fifty I got a brutal migraine that never went away. So here I am, every day. No, it’s not “just a headache” my whole head feels like it’s going to explode every day. For no apparent reason. I have tried about 100 different drugs. Every treatment available. Hospital infusions. Now I can’t even lie down, I have to sit up in a chair, can’t lower my head, the pain is too bad. THIS is my life.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    6 years ago

    Debbyj56 – have you seen a Migraine and headache specialist? Your symptoms sound suspiciously that you may not have a complete diagnosis. The never ending pain and positional aggravation are keys that should be investigated.

  • Marsha
    6 years ago

    My migraine pain (which, thankfully, I experience only rarely, when Zomig doesn’t work) feels as if I have taken my head and heaved it forcefully against a brick wall, and that initial pain of impact just stays. Mine is a “hard” pain that presents itself in a particular area of my head; it is always accompanied by an overlay of throbbing pain that travels somewhat around my head. The pain is excruciating, and when it happens, I can only lie in bed, consumed with thoughts of pain, and count the minutes (which stretch into many hours) until something, anything (usually, multiple doses of Zomig), eventually, slowly provide me with some relief.

  • lepoppet
    6 years ago

    My Migraine Monster takes the shape of 4-headed beast.

    The first is an intense dull pain that starts from the base of my skull and migrates over the top of my head and down to my eyebrows. The second beast holds a vise grip to my temples and tightens it throughout the attack. The third beast pokes hot ice picks into my eye sockets and the fourth beast donates a pounding throb to my entire head.

    Of course, no migraine party would be complete without the Gastric Monster who brings nausea and vomiting to the table. There’s also the Fatigue Monster, who wants me to be exhausted and tired, but will not actually put me to sleep.

    Headaches and Migraine are about as comparable as a Puppy and a Mac Truck.

    thanks for the article. hope you feel better soon.

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