People that don’t have migraines or people trying to understand if they have a migraine may ask, “What does a migraine feel like?” We compiled answers to this question from a doctor, artists, and students with migraine to help explain how a migraine feels.
The Doctor’s Perspective on What a Migraine Feels Like
Just about everybody has experienced a headache at some point in their life, but a migraine is different because of the additional symptoms. So, what does a migraine feel like? Here is how a doctor explains it.
“I’ve seen countless migraine patients in my clinic,” said Dr. Bradley Katz, a neuro-ophthalmologist and researcher at the University of Utah. “A migraine attack is already a very bad headache and the associated neurologic symptoms that accompany an attack really make it so much worse than just a tension type headache.”
Symptoms may include light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, nausea, vomiting, feeling ill or physically sick, irritable, and it makes it hard to focus and hard to think.
“It’s these other associated neurologic symptoms that go along with the headache that make it such an awful disease with which to contend.”
The Artists Perspective on What a Migraine Feels Like
The British Migraine Association held a ‘Migraine Art’ competition between 1980 and 1987 for artists to describe what a migraine feels like through. The collection includes over 500 pieces now. What does a migraine feel like? See 5 depictions here:
The Migraineurs Perspective on What a Migraine Feels Like
This past year Axon Optics created a scholarship. We asked college students to write a short essay or record a video to tell us about their migraine story and describe what a migraine feels like.
Stories came in from across the country that demonstrated the difficulty of living with migraine while attending college. It also showed the resiliency of these young adults battling through the condition in order to gain an education. Below we highlighted 12 of the migraine stories.
1) ‘Ice Pick’ Headache
What does a migraine feel like? “I had four types of headaches: migraine with light and sound sensitivity, tension headache, ice pick headache, and a constant brain freeze.”
By K Havlicek, Judson University
I have a family history of migraines. Growing up I knew I too would have them someday. Thus began my migraine journey in middle school. I took medication and it worked, until one day in 9th grade it didn’t. This is the story of that migraine that never left. I had countless doctor visits trying medications and suggesting therapists. Over Christmas break in 11th grade it became worse. I had four types of headaches: migraine with light and sound sensitivity, tension headache, ice pick headache, and a constant brain freeze.
Doctors see horses, patients that are typical, and sometimes they might look for zebras, but never unicorns. I was a unicorn. I got an MRI and there it was; a brain tumor. I couldn’t stop smiling; finally a reason behind the pain and it was literally in my head. At 17 years old I had brain surgery that successfully removed the entire tumor. Now at 25 years old, I still have a chronic migraine every day, but the pain is manageable. My Cefaly unit, Axon Optics tinted glasses, Botox injections along with diet and exercise help me manage.
My migraine is my friend. I joke but it’s true. It’s been with me for almost 10 years. It has helped me in ways I could never imagine. It has guided me through architecture school, knowing my limits and balancing my life. Sure I have bad days where I want to curl up and sleep all day. God has given me the strength and a wonderful family that supports and gives me the perseverance to keep going. Currently I’m finishing my Master in Architecture. Who knows what the future holds, but I’ll have my friend by my side always there to remind me of the good even in bad situations.
2) ‘Ten Bass Drum’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “…it felt like ten bass drums were constantly playing in my head.”
By M Lawton, Georgia Institute of Technology
I would often ask myself that question through tears as I laid buried under the covers in my bed with yet another migraine. At eleven years old, it didn’t quite register that I might be suffering from chronic migraines, I simply thought I had a really bad headache. One minute I would be fine, playing with friends at school or eating spaghetti for dinner, then all of a sudden the lights are too bright and the room is spinning.
On good days, I would take some pain medicine and trudge to school determined to make it through the day. I plastered a smile on my face and attempted to do my schoolwork, however, focus was difficult to obtain as the board became blurry at times, and the teacher’s voice seemed so low.
On bad days, when even sitting up seem to make my head hurt, I would lay in bed crying out to my parents for help, yearning for just a second of comfort and relief. Sometimes I would slip out of consciousness because it felt like ten bass drums were constantly playing in my head. It became clear, that this was not simply a case of bad headaches, and after multiples visits to the doctor, I was treated for basilar artery migraines. To finally have an explanation for my symptoms was an enormous relief to me.
As a young adult, I maintain a very healthy lifestyle as well as taking prescriptions to lessen the frequency and intensity of the migraines. Even though those years in my childhood were painful and traumatic, it helped me become more resilient in life, because now I know that no matter what happens I can overcome it.
3) ‘Missed Classes’ Migraine
Video no longer available
What does a migraine feel like? “…missed class because of migraines.”
By A Dolbeer, Indiana University
4) ‘Pain that Never Leaves’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “No matter how diligent I was with medication, the pain in my head rarely left for long.”
By B Williams, Northwest University
Chaotic church camp was the location. Intense night tag was the game. With children running everywhere, the energy was high and the stakes were even higher for the four hyped teams. Flashes of green, blue, red, and yellow light darted across the open field as the victor’s screams and pounding feet could be heard. A half-hour into the game, the accident happened.
The body of a twelve year-old slammed into me like a two-ton truck, our competitive spirits colliding, as his head made contact with my jaw. The world blurred as I tried to process my new reality with a spinning head, growing lights, ringing ears, and helping hands lowering me to the ground. Unknowingly, I had just suffered a debilitating concussion. Four days later, a doctor confirmed the diagnosis, prescribing two weeks of brain rest. Two weeks would not be enough.
Terrible migraines, brought on by sensitivity to light, noise, and physical exertion, would define my every action over the next three months. No matter how diligent I was with medication, the pain in my head rarely left for long. As weeks passed, I became frustrated by the slow progress especially when I returned to school only two weeks after the incident.
Essays and study sessions took twice as long, frequent breaks to sleep off the headaches occurred, and extra time to work off my student payments did not exist. I could no longer sing, play piano, workout, or attend church because the stimulation would cause more pain. My life, and the activities I enjoyed, were severely limited.
I learned hard lessons of humility, perseverance, and struggle, but I am glad my recovery is on the homestretch. I empathize with others who have these struggles and hope research continues for concussion victims and chronic migraine patients alike.
5) ‘Lights are Blurry and My Head Is Blurry’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “I close my eyes, and they open unwillingly. The lights are blurry, my head is blurry.”
By S DuPont, St. Catherine University
“The light. Turn it off. Close the curtain. I cannot sleep. Glance at my phone. Ouch. Turn down the brightness. Put it away. That’s better. My head is pounding. I just need to sleep. My face is wet. I am crying. It hurts, but the frustration is even more painful. I don’t understand why my head is throbbing. I feel the heat and pressure pushing against my temple. It will not stop. Ibuprofen.
Where’s the ibuprofen? Maybe I didn’t drink enough water. Chug. Gulp. More water? Yes, that could be helping. How long does ibuprofen take to kick in? Maybe I need caffeine. Coffee. Yes, let’s drink coffee. The kitchen light is paralyzing. It’s not even on. Forget the coffee. Back to bed. Covers over my head. It is way too hot. Back to the kitchen.
I want to cool down. Should I take an icy shower? No, my head really hurts. I just want to sleep. I wish I could sleep. Splash my face by the sink. A wet towel on my forehead should help. Ah okay that’s nice. I feel more relaxed now. My head is making me thrash again. The towel isn’t cold anymore. It’s dripping down my forehead with my tears. I close my eyes, and they open unwillingly. The lights are blurry, my head is blurry. I want it to go away. Why do these migraines keep happening?”
My headaches appeared without explanation, and I wasted time trying to cure them. Too often did I experience this routine before learning that I needed glasses. I thought using a crutch for my vision was going to make my sight worse, but the agony I went through was a terrible way to continue life. After being prescribed, I see brighter days clearly without discomfort.
6) ‘Elephant’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “It’s like the commercials where the elephant is sitting on you, except the elephant is sitting on your head over and over again.”
By C Hall, Monroe Community College
Anyone that has experienced a migraine at one point or another in their life can tell you that it comes with no mercy. It’s like the commercials where the elephant is sitting on you, except the elephant is sitting on your head over and over again. I come from a family that constantly battles this, most have gotten medication to treat it except for me.
When I was eight years old, my aunt took my cousins and I to go see Finding Nemo in theaters. Not even halfway through the movie my younger cousin, Ridley was complaining about his head hurting. We were to the point in the movie where Dory sings her famous line “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” as she delves into a deep trench in the ocean. At this point, my cousin throws up and some of it gets on my sneakers.
For me, the beginning of migraine land started in elementary school. I can remember not being able to concentrate in just second grade at a paper due to severe head throbbing pain. The problem with these migraines is that they don’t resolve themselves unless you take medication or fall asleep.
Another time probably around fifth grade I was in gym class and my head was spinning from the pain, I told my gym teacher that I wasn’t feeling well and was nauseous. My gym teacher told me to tough it out for the rest of class, we went to go sit in a big circle in the middle of the gym floor. Next thing you know, I look over to a girl at my left with my mouth full of vomit and then expel it in front of me. To this day I battle with controlling migraines from getting the best of me.
7) ‘Bill on Capitol Hill’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “My brain and inner ears would ache so badly that even my own blood circulation is amplified. I imagine that my blood products are moving like the “Bill on Capitol Hill,” sluggishly inching along without much progress”
By T Navarrete, San Jose State University
I lie awake in a dark room, trying to rest so that my migraine will pass, but every second feels like a boulder has taken the place of my head. I lie there, debilitated, hoping that the boulder will roll off of my collar bones because the pressure feels as if it is going to make my bones crumble away like a sand castle. My brain and inner ears would ache so badly that even my own blood circulation is amplified. I imagine that my blood products are moving like the “Bill on Capitol Hill,” sluggishly inching along without much progress.
During some portions of my migraines, my little brother’s voice outside becomes like nails on a chalkboard and any exposure to light feels as if I am staring straight into a solar eclipse. No food ever sounds good during these episodes, but water and chicken broth will suffice.
There does not really seem to be a cure for these nauseating headaches that I experience, but when I do have these migraines, I like to kick my feet up on the wall in a dark room with an alcohol saturated rag on my forehead and an ice cube at the base of my occipital, of course with the assistance of multiple motrins, I am able to rest for now. I greatly appreciate Axon’s pursuit of knowledge to help those who suffer from migraines like me.
8) ‘I Feel So Stupid!’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “I..I can’t even make sentences! I feel so stupid!” I was trying to talk to my boyfriend, Kyle, but I was a day post migraine.
By K Lutz, Illinois Central College
“I…I…” I was struggling to find the words that I needed to finish my sentence, I clutched my head and cried. “I..I can’t even make sentences! I feel so stupid!” I was trying to talk to my boyfriend, Kyle, but I was a day post migraine.
This is a scene that’s all too familiar to me during one of my migraine spells. Day one starts with a slight pain in my jaw and neck, ending with a small headache above my left eye. Day two the headache worsens. Day three is a migraine that consumes my whole body with racking pain; my shoulders tense, my eyes are sensitive to light, the whole left side of my head, neck, and face ache with stabbing pain, and the longer I’m on my feet the sicker I become. Day four is worse than day three. On day four, I am mentally slow, having difficulties forming sentences and reading text of any kind as my brain recovers from my migraine.
Days three and four make it difficult to function and to sit in a classroom setting where sitting at a computer is necessary. Days three and four make me want to lay in bed with the blinds drawn and the blankets over my head. Glasses or contacts, ibuprofen or aspirin, pressure points and ointments; none of it makes a difference on days three and four. My migraines could fail me out of school; but I won’t let them.
Day five, I’m back on my feet pushing myself to make up for my migraine spell. I have too many goals to let my migraines ruin what I’m working for. It would be easy to let my life become a migraine story, but this is my life and I’m the author.
9) ‘Water and Burn’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “Throughout high school, the bright lighting in the school continually bothered me. My eyes would water and burn… “
By A Clements, Le Moyne College
For many years, I have struggled with light sensitivity, which has proven to be a burden on everyday life. Throughout high school, the bright lighting in the school continually bothered me. My eyes would water and burn and I would get headaches. This made the classroom environment very uncomfortable for me. However, even though I struggled with light sensitivity, I was able to graduate with an Advanced Regents Diploma and an overall GPA of 3.7. Now, being in college, I still get headaches at least three times a week.
Last school year, I struggled to drive to school everyday, as the sunlight would bother me while driving. I struggled to keep up with work and get to class on time because of this, but maintained a 4.0 at the community college I attended. I transferred to Le Moyne College in the fall semester of 2016, where I still struggle with headaches and light sensitivity, but am still able to get high marks. Two to three times a week, I am forced to make my room completely dark and lay down until I felt I could function.
Even so, I have been able to keep up with my work the best I can. This has truly been a struggle everyday, but i have persevered to the best of my ability.
10) ‘Trapped in your Home’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “Trapped in your home migraine because of a light sensitivity.”
By S Heinrich, National University
11) ‘Unpredictable’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “I broke down sobbing in the parking lot…”
By K Dimmer, Hillsdale College
I began to suffer from migraines when I was 11, but they’ve gotten especially bad in the past two years. The worst light-triggered ocular one I’ve ever had was my senior year of high school, and it got so bad that when my dad came to take me home halfway through the day, I broke down sobbing in the parking lot, both out of pain and relief.
Now that I’m in college, thankfully they don’t come as often, but when they do, often it’s at the worst times, like when my friends and I are planning on watching movies or when I’ve got a giant exam in a few hours. The pain isn’t what bothers me (not that it’s fun); it’s the unpredictability and the fact that it completely halts my life.
As the saying goes, plan for the worst, but hope for the best. While I need to be mindful of getting enough sleep, avoiding fluorescent lights, and drinking lots of water, I refuse to let my migraines control my life. Sometimes they get me down, but I am not defined by a medical disorder. I am a clarinetist and a writer and a daughter and a student and so, so much more. I am going to make an impact on the world, and migraines will just be part of the story, not the final page.
12) ‘Unrelenting Force’ Migraine
What does a migraine feel like? “It hits me with such unrelenting force and buries me in agony.”
By C Garcia, Aviation Institute of Maintenance
It happens the same every time. I feel fine and then I start to notice a change. I begin to feel dispirited without any provocation and I become increasingly irritable with those around me. After this starts, my head begins to throb and the pain comes like an avalanche down a mountain. It hits me with such unrelenting force and buries me in agony. This mind numbing pain is so unstoppable that no medication or home remedy can truly alleviate it. The best thing is to lie down in a dark, soundless room and pray it is over quickly. It is completely debilitating and all consuming. Any sound or light intensifies the already unbearable pain. This is a life with migraines
For seemingly no reason at all, perfectly healthy people like myself, are thrown into these periods of anguish with very little reason as to why. There is, as of yet, no cure for this debilitating illness and it is my hope that my story will help others realize they are not alone. Though the pain is great, I believe human ingenuity is greater and that hopefully, someday soon, we will have a cure to help those of us buried with the excruciating pain of migraines.
So, what does a migraine feel like? These 12 stories certainly help us understand. Thank you to all those who submitted.
- Learn about our scholarship to support those affected by migraine
- Learn about migraine glasses
- Learn about photophobia and light sensitivity
- Buy migraine glasses