Is it Migraine or Something Else?
Living with a chronic illness tends to make us believe that every physical symptom we experience is related to that illness. This is especially true for something as symptomatically varied as migraine. Nauseated? Migraine. Dizzy? Migraine. Neck pain? Migraine. Fatigue? Migraine. Blurred vision? Mood swings? Feel like you’re three times the size of your car? Migraine. Migraine. Migraine.
It’s all migraine, unless it’s not.
And, sometimes, it isn’t.
What if it's not migraine?
Sometimes, it’s something else. Something small and simple like a cold or a bad night’s sleep. Something more serious—a stroke, meningitis.
So how do we know? When just about every common symptom of every major illness could be caused by migraine, perhaps has been caused by migraine in the past, how are we to judge if this time a symptom could be indicative of something else?
Most of us tend to err on the side of migraine. At least, I know I do. It’s easier to write any symptom off as one of the strange and ever-changing ways migraine disease presents itself than have to face a medical professional and try to convince them that a symptom they can’t see suddenly feels “different.”
Different is important, though. In fact, when living with chronic migraine, a small change in symptom presentation may be the only clue we’re given that something else is wrong.
We have another article here at Migraine.com that expertly discusses how to know when a migraine attack is an emergency. It’s essential reading, and I hope everyone on this site has read it at least once. But this is about something else. When you live with chronic migraine, knowing when something isn’t a migraine attack can be just as essential.
There's no clear cut way to know
Unfortunately, the presentation of migraine is too varied for there to be hard guidelines for these scenarios. When researching the issue, then, what seems to be of most concern is that word “different.”
Are you experiencing an attack that came on at a different time than normal (e.g. in the middle of the night compared to mid-day)?
Is the pain more intense or of a different nature (stabbing instead of pulsating, for instance) than usual?
Are you experiencing an unusual symptom along with your usual symptoms?
Is a usual symptom more intense or longer lasting than normal?
Are you feeling more disabled by a symptom than normal?
Is the symptom timeline unusual? For example, are symptoms presenting one after the other instead of all at once or vice versa?
Do you have a fever in addition to your usual symptoms?
Trust your instincts
If the answer to any of the above is yes or you’re experiencing some other unusual presentation of your usual symptoms, you should call your doctor or go into a medical facility for evaluation immediately. Many serious illnesses, like meningitis, present with migraine-like symptoms, such as photophobia, intense head pain, and nausea. Many of these illnesses also are time-sensitive, meaning the more time that passes between symptom onset and evaluation may mean more serious risks and poorer outcomes for you.
If you’re experiencing anything unusual, or if something feels “off” to you, don’t write it off to migraine. Trust your instincts. You live with this disease day in and day out. You know what is normal for you, even if that may not be normal for someone else. If you’re concerned, call your doctor, go to urgent care, or visit the ER. You’ll be glad you did.
How much has your migraine disease changed or evolved over time?