What It's Like To Have A Migraine Attack

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy, Unsplash, Pexels and elenaleonova/Getty

Everyone has heard of migraine headaches. A lot of people use the word “migraine” to describe any painful headache, but migraine is more than just a headache. Migraine pain can be truly debilitating. Sensitivity to light and sound make “powering through” a migraine attack simply impossible. Many migraine sufferers experience nausea and vomiting, the headaches can last for days, and they leave a person feeling battered and fatigued.

Migraine headaches can have a lot of different triggers, or no discernible trigger at all. They can come on slowly, or hit you out of nowhere. They come with a slew of other symptoms that make functioning normally next to impossible.

I had my first migraine attack when I was twenty-one.

I was on a business trip with my father. My neck felt a little stiff all day, but I blamed it on the long car ride. When we arrived at our destination, we went directly to a business dinner, and that’s where things took a turn.

My vision was perfect back then, but my menu looked blurry. The whole restaurant seemed very overly bright. I tried to push through, but by the time we got our food, I had a pulsing pain that felt like it was behind my right eye. I pushed my food around a little bit, but I couldn’t make myself eat. The pain in my head was quickly progressing from distracting to truly painful. I managed to make it through the meal, but by the time we got back to the hotel, it was excruciating. My head was pounding like a drum. I felt like someone was trying to escape from inside my head by hammering their way out. I was nauseous, vomiting, and I couldn’t stand even the dimmest light. I was unable to do anything but lie in bed with a scarf over my eyes, hoping it would go away.

My father called my doctor for me, and we followed her directions. Nothing over-the-counter was helping, I was in a city I didn’t know, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I rode it out.

That first headache persisted for over 48 hours. When the pain subsided, I spent the whole next day exhausted. I still had a dull, mild headache, my limbs felt like concrete, and my mind was foggy for another 24 hours or so after the worst of the pain was gone.

Little did I know that my first attack was one of many.


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Over the next few years, I experienced at least one or two debilitating headaches a month, and had less severe headaches almost every single day. My migraine attacks were usually preceded by a warning sign, like a stiff neck for a day or two before the headache. A few minutes before the pain started, I would experience an “aura” which for me usually looked like blurred vision and shimmery sparkles in my peripheral vision. Over time I learned that if I started treating the headache at the first sign of an aura, the pain would be less intense and not last as long. Eventually, the worst of the pain would only last around six to eight hours, instead of two days.

As any frequent migraine sufferer will attest, I was extremely lucky to only have a couple attacks a month.

I was luckier still when my migraine attacks seemed to disappear altogether after the birth of my first child. Since he was born eight years ago, I’ve only had four or five migraine headaches that I can remember.

My experience with migraine was literally a cakewalk compared to the way some people fight to live comfortably with a chronic headache condition. Five migraine sufferers agreed to share their stories with Scary Mommy.

Here’s what they had to say.

“First, my vision goes blurry like an old TV screen, then my vision gets back to normal. I know that in about 30 minutes, I will get a migraine behind one of my eyes. I’m useless. I have to go to sleep and put the pillow over my head. My head is sore for 2-3 days after.” –Sadie L.

“I have chronic migraines (15 or more a month). They have so many variations. You can have vertigo, nausea, pain can be on different levels or scales. I’ve been to multiple doctors and neurologists. Mine typically start behind my right eye and can actually feel like sinus pressure initially. If I can’t get it under control within an hour or 2 with an abortive med, it can be bad for days. I’m not able to function during bad attacks and spend a lot of time in bed during them. I just started getting Botox from a neurologist. It’s 30-40 injections in less than 15 minutes and in different places (specific nerves blocked). I will get it every 3 months as long as my frequency and pain level are reduced by 50 percent or more.” –Michele A.

“An arrow shoots straight through my eyeball and magnifies every one of my senses until I can’t stand light, sound, smell, or touch and would rebel at anything going into my stomach. My brain feels like it’s trying to explode out my ears if I’m not in full isolation stillness for hours, preferably unconscious.” –Amanda B.

“I started getting migraines when I was sixteen, and we never could isolate a cause. They would hit me out of nowhere; no build up, no aura. Just blinding pain in one side of my head that went from a 1 to a 10 within 20 minutes to an hour. Nothing we did at home ever helped. I felt like if I could just drill a hole in my skull, I could let the pressure out. Finally, my doctor told my mother to take me to hospital for a shot of pain relief when they started. I would sleep off the pain in the ER on IV fluids. My headaches continued into my early twenties then tapered off. I’ve had a kidney stone, delivered two babies, dislocated my knee, and fallen down a flight of stairs onto my chin. I’d do any of those things again before I would suffer one more migraine.” –Jeanne S.

“My migraines start as mild headaches, and progress to full-blown migraine attacks. When I was younger, they came on fast, within an hour or so. Now they seem to creep on slowly over a day or so. Nothing helps. I take the maximum dosage of my medication, and I get no relief. I have to be in total darkness and just wrestle with pounding pain that I can’t even sleep through. It takes about 24-hours for the tension to release. The headache subsides slowly like it comes on.” –Emily D.

Migraine headaches are a common condition, affecting millions of people in the U.S. every year.

That’s why most of us are familiar with the term. There are other, less commonly discussed types of migraine attacks, too. Ocular migraines can cause vision disturbances without headache pain. There are even abdominal migraines, which often occur in children and cause stomach pain and vomiting. Complex migraines can cause stroke-like symptoms, like slurred and confused speech. (Who can forget reporter Serene Branson who suffered a complex migraine on live television after the Grammy Awards in 2011?)

If you think you are experiencing migraine headaches, call your doctor right away. It’s often a long road, but they can try to help you manage your headaches and live your life with less pain.

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