What migraine feels like?

What Type of Headache Do You Have?

Chronic Migraine

If you have a headache more than 15 days a month, you’re probably suffering from chronic migraine. Many of the days often feel like typical migraine, but there may be considerable variability in the severity of the symptoms and head pain on any given day. Some days patients may mistake the pain for a “tension-headache” or “sinus headache” if the pain is less severe. Many patients with chronic migraine also use acute headache pain medications on more than 10-15 days per month, and this can actually lead to even more frequent headache.

Ice Pick Headaches

Ice pick headaches are pretty self-explanatory. They feel like you’re getting stabbed in the head with an ice pick. They often come on suddenly, delivering an intense, sharp pain. They’re short–usually only lasting 5-30 seconds–but incredibly painful. These headaches occur on the orbit, temple, and parietal area of your head. That’s where your trigeminal nerve is, which is the nerve in your face that’s responsible for biting and chewing, as well as face sensation. The nerve is on the side of your head just past your eye and above your ear. If you get sharp pains in this area, chances are you’re getting ice pick headaches.

Cluster Headaches

This is one of the most severe types of pain that a human can experience. With cluster headaches, you’ll feel an almost burning pain around and above your eyes, at your temples, and even moving toward the back of your head. You’ll often also get red or swollen eyes or a runny nose, among other symptoms. Because they occur in such a large area and provoke other symptoms, cluster headaches can be the most irritating headache, and are sometimes referred to as “suicide headaches.”

Cervicogenic headache

When the pain in your head is actually caused by pain in your neck, you probably have a cervicogenic headache. The pain usually comes from the neck or from a lesion on the spine, which is often confused with pain in the back of your head. It’s common for this type of headache to require physical therapy in addition to medication or other treatment.

Pinpointing the cause of headache is sometimes complicated. There are many types, and many methods of treatment. Focusing on where exactly your head hurts and the accompanying symptoms can help you and your doctor determine what type of migraine or headache you suffer from, resulting in a more effective treatment plan and fewer painful days.

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lidocaine up my nose.

SARAH SHAW: I have an injection

medication that I take,

where I inject it into my leg

when I have a migraine episode.

SPEAKER 3: I’ve been

hospitalized twice to try

week-long treatments that didn’t

have any effect.

After the last hospitalization–

the treatment that I tried–

I really just felt like, OK,

I just need to figure out how

to live with this now.

I can’t stand another person

saying that they’re going

to help me when it’s just not

going to work.

SARAH SHAW: Migraines have

really forced me to miss out

on the past three years, half

of any social interactions,

and family interactions and me,

just personal enjoyment time.

SPEAKER 1: I’m always having

to kind of rearrange my schedule

and plans around my pain.

SARAH SHAW: I ended up going

to the hospital the night

before my birthday.

And what was supposed to be

a one-night treatment turned

into a week.

And I ended up spending

my 25th birthday

in the hospital.

SPEAKER 2: I went to a specialty

inpatient clinic for nine days.

That was the first time

the Pirates made the playoffs

in 20 years.

I was watching it alone

in a hospital bed in Chicago

by myself.

SPEAKER 1: How I live

with this condition– it is

like a relationship.

It’s like a very bad


that I’ve had for a long time.

I know eventually, there’s going

to be a good day.

And that’s just what I live for.

SARAH SHAW: One thing that I

want people to know who have

never had a migraine,

or who know me who don’t know

that I have migraines,

is that I’m trying my best.

SPEAKER 3: It’s something

that we have to live with all

the time, and typically, hide.

If someone tells you that they

have a migraine, that they’re

constantly experiencing this,

believe them.

SPEAKER 1: It’s not something

that we’re doing because we want

to get out of seeing you,

or get out of work,

or just stay home and lay


SARAH SHAW: Even if I look

like I’m happy on the inside,

90% of the time,

I am probably having

a migraine attack.

SPEAKER 1: I’ve never once have

faked having a headache.

But I fake being well

every single day.

SPEAKER 3: The pain is a part

of who I am.

SPEAKER 2: Would I like to live

without it?


But yeah, it’s part of me.

I’m going to keep fighting it.

ROBIN ROBERTS: Are migraines

impacting your life?

You can go to WebMD.com/migraine

to assess your approach

to managing them.

You are going to get

personalized strategies

for living better that you can

discuss with your doctor.


What is a migraine headache?

A migraine is usually an intense pounding headache that can last for hours or even days. The pounding or pulsing pain usually begins in the forehead, the side of the head, or around the eyes. The headache gradually gets worse. Just about any movement, activity, bright light, or loud noise seems to make it hurt more. Nausea and vomiting are common during a migraine.

Migraines may happen only once or twice a year, or as often as daily. Women are more likely to have migraines than men.

There are different types of migraine headaches. The most common types of migraines are classic migraines and common migraines.

Classic migraines (also called complicated migraines) start with a warning sign called an aura. These types of migraines are sometimes also called “migraines with aura.” The aura often involves changes in the way you see. You may see flashing lights, colors, a pattern of lines, or shadows. You may temporarily lose some of your vision, such as your side vision.

You may also feel a strange prickly or burning sensation, or have muscle weakness on one side of your body. You may have trouble communicating. You may also feel depressed, irritable, and restless.

Auras last about 15 to 30 minutes. Auras may occur before or after your head pain. Sometimes the pain and aura overlap, or the pain never occurs. The head pain of classic migraines may occur on one side of your head or on both sides.

Common migraines don’t start with an aura. For this reason, these types of migraines are also called “migraines without aura.” Common migraines may start more slowly than classic migraines, last longer, and interfere more with daily activities. The pain of common migraines may be on only one side of your head. Most people who have migraines have common migraines (they don’t have an aura).

Migraines without head pain, sometimes called “silent migraines,” may cause you to feel other migraine symptoms, but not pain. At least not the usual migraine pain around your eyes and temples. This type of migraine may even include an aura phase. You may also feel the same sensitivity to light and sound as with a typical migraine.

Hemiplegic migraines cause one side of your body to become weak, similar to having a stroke. These symptoms are only temporary. They are a part of the migraine attack. Areas of the body affected by the weakness may include your face, arm, or leg. The weakness may last from an hour to even days. It most often goes away within 24 hours. For this type of migraine, the head pain can come before or after the weakness. This type of migraine is rare.

Retinal migraines (also called ocular migraines) cause changes in vision that are not related to aura vision changes. For retinal migraines, symptoms involve diminished vision or even blindness in one eye. These symptoms do not last long. They can occur before or after head pain. If you experience this type of migraine, it is important to contact your doctor.

Icepick headaches are not migraine headaches. They produce a stabbing pain around your eyes and temples. These stabbing pains may occur repeatedly in the same place or jump around to different areas each time. This type of headache can occur at any time and without warning. If you are a person who has migraine headaches, you are more likely to than others to get icepick headaches, too.

Cluster headaches are not migraine headaches. They are rare headaches that occur in patterns, known as cluster periods. These periods can mean having a headache at the same time every day for a week or even a month. Cluster headaches can be extremely painful. They usually cause pain on one side of your head. This pain can be so severe that it makes your eyelid droop and your nose to get stuffy.

Cervicogenic headaches are not migraine headaches. They are headaches caused by another illness or physical condition, usually a problem in your neck. Many times, this type of headache can be brought on by a sudden movement of your neck. You might also get a cervicogenic headache after keeping your neck in the same position for too long. The pain can last for hours or days. It may be limited to one side of your head or face.

What does a migraine feel like?

The pain of a migraine headache can be intense. It can get in the way of your daily activities. Migraines aren’t the same for all people. Possible symptoms of migraines are listed below. You may have a “premonition” several hours to a day before your headache starts. Premonitions are feelings you get that can signal a migraine is coming. These feelings can include intense energy, fatigue, food cravings, thirst, and mood changes.

5 Women on What It Really Feels Like to Have a Migraine

For anyone who thinks a migraine is “just” another headache, consider this: In a recent survey, women ranked their worst migraine pain as worse even than that of giving birth.

About one in four women will have a migraine attack in their lives, according to the American Migraine Foundation, and in extreme cases, as many as 15 times a month. Having migraines this frequently is classified as chronic migraine, meaning you have a migraine more often than not, according to the AMF.

Survey respondents reported having to miss birthdays, graduations, and work due to the condition–and some felt they were skipped over for promotions.

We spoke to five women with chronic migraine to find out what it really feels like. Here are their stories.

“I’m generally between two and four on a pain scale, but twice a week I go to six to eight.”–Rachel Koh, 47, Southlake, Texas

Koh has three numbers she keeps track of every day. One is her pain. “I’m generally between two and four on a pain scale, but twice a week I go to six to eight,” she says. A two or three feels like a “twinge or pulsing,” while the higher numbers bring a throbbing, stabbing pain that takes over her whole head.

Then there’s the nausea scale and the scale for mental acuity. “I’m best in the morning, but by the end of the day, you can’t count on me for anything,” says Koh, whose migraines forced her to give up her job as a Fortune 100 executive. “I have short-term memory loss, brain fog. I don’t drive. Sometimes I can’t string a sentence together.”

She also lists among her migraine symptoms hypersensitivity to light, sound, and smells, as well as diarrhea, fever-like symptoms, and clumsiness.

“I don’t have a life that anyone would envy,” says Koh, who estimates she has about two pain-free days a year. As for childbirth? “I would sign up for that 10 times a year to get rid of what I have every day,” she says.

RELATED: 11 Health Risks Linked to Migraines

“I get really nauseated, and I vomit. I’m very dizzy. I’m really fatigued, but I can’t sleep.” –Michelle L. Tracy, 33, Amherst, Massachusetts

Tracy’s first migraine attack happened when she was 19. It made her so ill she wasn’t able to stand up or stop vomiting. She went to the emergency room, where doctors and nurses got the pain and vomiting under control so she could go home. Within 24 hours she was back again with the same excruciating symptoms. After that, she estimates she was at the emergency room about three times as week.

Thanks to a dedicated healthcare team, things aren’t nearly as bad as they were, but Tracy still has daily migraine attacks, half of which are severe. Often, they consist of intense pain on the left side of her forehead and in her neck and shoulders.

“I get really nauseated, and I vomit. I’m very dizzy. I’m really fatigued, but I can’t sleep,” says Tracy. “I’m incredibly sensitive to light and sound and smell in ways that would seem ridiculous to other people.” For example, she put tape on her air conditioner and alarm clock to cover the digital numbers so they don’t bother her.

The chronic condition meant Tracy had to give up her dream job as a preschool teacher. She now lives with her parents and does freelance writing. “It’s wonderful that I have that option, but I didn’t imagine being a 33-year-old woman living with her parents,” she says.

RELATED: I Was Finally Diagnosed With Chronic Migraine—After Years of Being Told My Headaches Came From Stress

“All I am is pain.” –Eileen Brewer, 40, Columbia, Maryland

Brewer’s first attack came after a bout with spinal meningitis when she was 5. After that, migraines came “just occasionally, once a month sometimes, or once or twice a year,” she says.

By the time she turned 15, though, she was having 15 a month. “I started to miss school because of the pain and not being able to see,” she says. “A lot of time I’d go to school anyway but couldn’t see out of my eye because of the flashing lights.” Brewer estimates she missed 60 or more days of her sophomore year.

As an adult, different medications and strategies have helped, but she hasn’t had any treatment for the past seven years because she’s been either pregnant or breastfeeding. “There are some days it is excruciating. All I am is pain. I spend a lot of nights sleeping on the bathroom floor because I’m sick to my stomach and my head hurts,” she says. “Other days I can think around the pain.”

Now that she has weaned her youngest baby, Brewer hopes going back on treatment will improve her symptoms.

RELATED: 14 Things People With Migraines Wish You Knew

“I don’t like going to the emergency room. Only if I’ve be throwing up for more than six hours.” –Carly Kilby, 36, Tifton, Georgia

“I would give birth a 100 times before getting a migraine,” says Kilby, who had her first attack at 16. An enduring memory from her high school prom: Throwing up in the front yard of the photographer’s house.

For years, Kilby took pills to control her symptoms, which didn’t help much: She got so nauseous, she threw them up. In fact, she threw up so much that she frequently ended up in the emergency room because she was dehydrated. “I don’t like going to the emergency room,” she says. “Only if I’ve been throwing up for more than six hours.”

Once, Kilby thought she was having a stroke. “I couldn’t even get my body to function. I was trying to get upstairs to check on my son and couldn’t get my feet and arms to move, everything was so heavy,” she said. “My speech was slurred.”

It was migraine again. Now, she takes an injection migraine medication and uses Botox shots to reduce her migraine frequency, if not severity.

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“I have to always be doing something to take the focus off of the pain.” –Katie M. Golden, 36, Santa Monica, California

Like Brewer, Golden started having migraine attacks at 5, but fewer than 15 days out of the month. They continued into her 20s, about once a month or less. She once went a couple of years without one, until January 2011, when a migraine came and basically never went away.

“I would get an aura and then within 20 to 30 minutes, the head pain would be unrelenting for four to five hours. I was nauseous, sensitive to the light. I couldn’t drive. Sometimes I’d be stuck at work or I’d be in the middle of shopping.” She started forgetting important details from work meetings and eventually left a job she loved and took disability.

After her migraines became chronic, Golden worked for a year with a professional trainer just to walk half a mile again. Once she finally accepted her new normal, she started writing and advocating to raise awareness for chronic migraine disease on her website and blog, Golden Graine. Having the condition influenced her decision not to have children, she says.

She wakes up every day with head pain, but nighttime is the worst. “I can’t sit still. The pain is high. I have to always be doing something to take the focus off of the pain,” Golden says. There can be days, weeks, even months when she doesn’t leave the house because of her symptoms.

It’s just a headache. Can’t you just take some ibuprofen and get back to work?

People who get migraine headaches—or migraine attacks, which is even more accurate since they don’t always come with headaches—are all too familiar with this kind of misperception.

Migraines, which affect some 38 million Americans, consist of a web of symptoms that can make day-to-day functioning nearly impossible, including headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to sound, light, smell, or touch, tingling or numbness, and vision changes. So no, it’s not just a headache.

For about 2% of people, migraines are chronic, meaning they rear their ugly heads on 15 or more days each month, says Elizabeth Seng, PhD, a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor at Yeshiva University in New York who specializes in the study and treatment of headache and chronic pain.

MORE: 16 Highly Effective Migraine Solutions

For the lucky folks who have never experienced one, it can be hard to put all of that suffering into perspective. Around 88% of people with migraines say they feel misunderstood, Seng says. Which is why she’s been working with headache medication manufacturer Excedrin on their launch of a neat little tool to help. Recently, the company launched The Migraine Experience, a virtual reality app you can download on your phone and project using Google Cardboard to simulate migraine symptoms (pain not included!), in hopes of fostering more empathy and compassion for people who do get migraine attacks. “I have had patients in tears in my office because their spouses don’t understand what they’re going through,” Seng says. “Or there can be a negative toll at work, because people can’t commit with absolute certainty to being somewhere if they’re having frequent migraines. That inflexibility can be really isolating socially, too.” (Discover how to heal 95+ health conditions naturally with Rodale’s Eat for Extraordinary Health & Healing.)

To help shed some light on what migraine sufferers—technically called migraineurs—are going through, we asked real women to tell us what it’s really like. Here, they describe the attacks.

Migraines are the bane of my existence. I’ve been getting headaches since I was 7 years old, but once I reached my teen years, those headaches started turning into migraines more and more frequently. Some are more painful than others, but they are all truly awful, especially if I don’t catch them early and have to ride them out for hours. One actually sent me to the emergency room years ago because none of my normal remedies (Tylenol and a dark, quiet room) worked to alleviate it.

Fortunately, not everyone experiences migraines, or even headaches at all. I’ve had people tell me they have no idea what a headache even feels like, and it’s a little hard to describe. Explaining what a migraine feels like is even more difficult, because it’s so horrendous in the moment that I never stop to think about how I would describe the pain. So I consulted Marc Moisi, MD, a neurosurgeon at DMC’s Detroit Receiving Hospital, about what causes a migraine, what it feels like, and how to combat it. Keep reading if you’re concerned that you suffer from them, too.

What Does a Migraine Feel Like?

“Migraines typically are recurring headaches that surface on one side of the head rather than both sides,” Dr. Moisi told POPSUGAR. This throbbing or pulsating pain in your head usually brings about nausea and vomiting. Migraines can also make you feel lightheaded or dizzy and very sensitive to lights and sounds. Speaking from experience, I can say that the pressure makes me feel, quite literally, like my head is going to explode. My eyes get hot, then symptoms like nausea set in.


What Causes Migraines?

Dr. Moisi explained that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of migraines. He said some believe it has to do with neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals in the brain that send messages between cells, but it ultimately comes down to triggers that are highly individual. “Many different triggers have been identified, including stress, lights, sounds, smells, foods (chocolate, alcohol, red wine, aged cheeses),” he said. Hormones can also play a role, which is why many women experience headaches around their period. My migraines most frequently stem from things like not drinking enough water, not sleeping enough, eating certain dairy products, or having too many carbs.

What Can You Do About Migraines?

If you get migraines and can pinpoint the trigger, obviously your first line of defense is to eliminate that trigger as frequently as possible. When I realized certain foods gave me migraines, I stopped eating them. Dr. Moisi noted that over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help, but it’s best to consult your doctor, who can develop a treatment plan that works for you.

Image Source: Getty / LaylaBird

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