What It’s Like to
Have a Migraine

by
in

In Short: Torture.

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When I was diagnosed with migraine headaches, the doctor told me the typical sufferer was creative, intelligent …and female. “Two out of three ain’t bad,” I replied.

Not that it was a difficult diagnosis: my parents also had migraines, and my siblings. But it did open up treatment options. At the time the options were opioids (pain relief) and ergotamine, an alkaloid. The doctor prescribed both.

Photo: photosforyou on Pixabay.

Neither was ideal: migraines often cause nausea. Opioids too. And ergotamine! If one drug didn’t work and I took the other, I was almost guaranteed to puke, which is a real joy when you have a blinding headache.

My mother used ergotamine enough that it caused circulation problems, so I stopped using it. I got very good at figuring out the lowest dose of codeine that would help, but I was still taking a lot.

Most migraineurs* report various “triggers” cause headaches, including stress, poor sleep, hormonal changes, caffeine, weather, hunger, and many foods, none of which are universal. For me, the only thing I know that will trigger an especially nasty headache is aspartame, the artificial sweetener.

* as we’re called by medical researchers, such as in the study, “Is the Brain of Migraineurs ‘Different’ Even in Dreams?” Guys! See “creative and intelligent” — yeah our brains are ‘different’!

There are two types of migraines: “classic” and “common.” The difference: “classic” sufferers usually see an “aura” (visual disturbance) that signals a headache is coming. I don’t get that; I’m “common.”

My migraines feel like a spike being driven into my head at a specific spot I can point to, through to my eye. Bright light makes it worse.

Over time I found that I’d feel somewhat better by eating, so I learned to eat when nauseous. I suspect a lot of my fellow sufferers have had to master that.

A new class of drug was approved in the 1990s for migraine attacks, “triptans.” At first it was only available as an injectable. The drug company supplied a syringe and this weird plastic thing that would automatically JAM the needle in and press hard on the plunger, which was guaranteed to hurt like hell.

As a former medic I had given plenty of shots, so I threw away the plastic thing and simply gave myself the shot. This was while I was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One time, just as I sunk the needle into my arm, a co-worker walked into my office. Great… she’ll think I’m a heroin addict or something!

“Is that the migraine drug?!” she blurted. “Does it work?!” Yes, I told her, pretty well. She called her doctor for a prescription and had it the next day!

It was, of course, expensive, and I was getting headaches enough that I finally researched other ways to manage them. Beta blockers, which calm the heart and are prescribed to heart attack victims (after they recover) and for high blood pressure, help prevent migraines. Last I heard they still don’t really know why.

I told my doctor I wanted to try them. He prescribed the lowest dose possible, twice a day. After a couple of months I noticed I wasn’t getting headaches as often. They slowly decreased more and more over the next several years.

I’m now almost headache free, When I do get one it’s nowhere near as bad, and OTC drugs almost always help. But I keep codeine on hand just in case. I rarely need it.

Randy Cassingham is WiLt’s head writer and publisher. His flagship publication This is True, established in 1994, is the oldest entertainment feature on the Internet.

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19 thoughts on “Have a Migraine”

  1. Always interesting to read other people’s experience of migraines. I never had much luck with the triptans. Codeine+gravol (antinauseant — you call it something different in the US) works for me but then I’m unconscious for several hours. I’ve never tried beta blockers though — I’ll have to look into that.

    I had to look up gravol (we call them “anti-emetics”): that’s dimenhydrinate, “Dramamine” in the U.S. and U.K., most popular for motion sickness. It’s an antihistamine, which may work great, but as an older antihistamine it causes drowsiness, and of course codeine does too, so no wonder it knocks you out. The key with betas isn’t a big dose, but to give it time. Good luck! -rc

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  2. I suffered with migraines for over 40 years, tried many different medications. I had heart palpitations a few years ago, which put me in the hospital for a week. They found that my blood pressure was up a bit so they put me on a “baby” dose of blood pressure medications. A couple weeks later I realized no more migraines! What a blessing that was.

    The blood pressure meds changed my life!

    My guess: a beta blocker. -rc

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  3. Ugh. I hated sumatriptan. Knock on wood, I get migraines pretty rarely these days. I hear there are some new drugs for them too, though I haven’t looked into them at all.

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  4. One of the biggest breakthroughs in migraine treatment is the use of Botox injections in the scalp and forehead. I was approved for them after years of chronic migraines, and what a huge difference it’s made.

    I get the shots every three months, and I don’t have “Botox forehead” like people who get it for cosmetic purposes. I can still move my eyebrows, and I do get a smoother forehead, just not paralyzed.

    What I don’t get are chronic migraines any more. I sometimes get one when I’m due for my next appointment, but that’s a wonderful change from 4 or more days a week. I manage those with a very small dose of codeine, Tylenol #2, which is the lowest I can get since I no longer live in Canada.

    Though you can break the tablets in half. Glad Botox works for you: the doctor who discovered the effect injected me, but it didn’t help (and did temporarily paralyze the eyebrow on that side!), so I never tried it again. -rc<>

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  5. My wife had terrible migraines until a chance moment when she mentioned it to a colleague who has immense knowledge of plants. He said “Feverfew” and strode off across our campus returning with a living plant. We planted it next to our door and whenever she got a warning she would eat one fresh leaf — and never had another full-on attack.

    I tried feverfew without any noticeable effect. Perhaps the difference between trying a leaf from a fresh plant vs unknown-age dried plant packed in a capsule! -rc

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  6. My husband suffered from migraines since he was around 8 years old. He also had the “common” ones. On one of our very first dates, he looked absolutely green during dinner. We left before we were done eating, he raced back to my apartment (scaring me because he was driving so fast!) and walked me to my door. He then said, Oh man, I need to use your bathroom, I’m so sorry and ran to where I said it was. I heard him vomiting and thought, oh dear, he got food poisoning!

    Needless to say, it was a migraine. He then came out looking way worse for the wear, explained he had a migraine and asked if there was any way he could lie down on my sofa. I said yes, he fell asleep hard and I spent the next 4 hours just staring at him and pacing around. It was my first ever experience with a migraine sufferer. Once he woke up, at midnight, he felt much better and was rather sheepish. I think I fell in love with him that night! He always thought that was the worst impression he could have ever given me, vomiting on a date, but I saw how sick he was and spent 4 hours wondering if he was going to die or something and…well…I just fell in love with him. LOL

    During the 80’s he tried Sumatripan. After his 1st dose, he had a mild allergic reaction. After his 2nd dose a few days later, he had a much worse reaction. I remember driving 90 mph on a highway in a blizzard, slipping all over the road, because he was next to me in the car, passed out. I pulled into the parking lot of our doctor’s office, hitting the building as I did so! I jumped out of the car, leaving my husband in the car. I flew into the office screaming like a banshee. Luckily the doctor came out immediately with a shot of adrenaline. As he opened the passenger door, my poor hubby fell right out into the snow. Anyhow, all’s well, he survived that episode and never took Sumatripan again. He said he would not die from a migraine, even though he might wish he could at the time.

    Eventually, he did go on a beta blocker due to his blood pressure and voila! Very few and far between headaches!

    I had several migraines myself, the aura kind, while going through menopause. I don’t wish these on anyone! I think my husband is a super strong person for having dealt with these for so many years. I think everyone who has to suffer is a super strong person. 🙂

    One heck of a story! Glad he tripped upon a solution. Other than developing quite a significant tolerance for pain, I can’t think of many benefits of migraine, but finding a terrific wife because of it would certainly be one. -rc

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  7. I have classic migraine. I found my migraines have diminished in both frequency and amplitude with age. I suspect it is a side effect of clogged arteries since the two correlate.

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  8. [I am English = free health care]

    I vividly remember my first migraine in the US, where I lived for 11 years, followed by decades of over the counter pills and upteen “suggestions’ from others.

    Mine were mostly mild, stubborn and aura free with the occasional bout that drove to me lie in a hot bath all day.

    A few months back a well meaning neighbour of my inlaws gave me her ‘advice’. I gritted my teeth and heard her talk about ‘Sumatriptan’ to be polite. My wife said, who not try (Damn! that woman is clever).

    I had been to a GP (general practitioner = MD) before some years ago and all I got was… “Hmmm, headache/migraine it’s tricky isn’t it?”

    This time she walked me through 4 diagnostic questions and declared me a migraine sufferer and handed me a free prescription for Sumatriptan for as long as I needed it! I cut my 50mg pills down to use the minimum I can get by with and it has changed my life.

    PS – I study meditation and in the past, migraine was a problem when going on 10, 30 or 45 day courses. I vividly remember being on a 10 day course in India and having to crawl out of the meditation hall on all fours to go and lie down.

    A few months ago, I sat my first course (30 days) with Sumatriptan and what a difference!

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  9. I was misdiagnosed for years because I assumed that all migraines came with an aura and I’ve never had one with my headaches. Then I wound up in the emergency room and admitted overnight because I had my first hemiplegic migraine while they ruled out a stroke. I had diminished motor function in my right hand and arm and developed a severe stutter that made it almost impossible to communicate. Since then I have had chronic migraines, occasionally with varying levels of facial paralysis.

    My neurologist tried several medications without relief before we found one that worked — aimovig (erenumab), which is relatively new. It’s a monoclonal antibody drug that is a CGRP antagonist that works by binding to CGRP receptors and and blocks CGRP proteins from attaching to them, which reduces inflammation and vasodilation. It’s kind of fascinating. When I started taking it, I was having near-daily debilitating migraines, sometimes multiple migraines per day. Now I have about half a dozen a month, more if there are a lot of severe barometric pressure changes, and they are usually less severe. I have triptans to stop migraines when they do get bad, but they cause muscle cramps in my arms, shoulders, and neck which can be worse than the migraines themselves, so sometimes it’s easier to just lie still in the dark and take a dose of zofran for the nausea and wait it out.

    Yow! Success is “just” a half-dozen a month. Glad the new drug is working for you. -rc

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  10. I suffered for 30 years with 20-ish days of migraine per month. We tried every medication and treatment that had ever worked for anyone! Ergotamine, beta blockers, Sumatriptan, Botox, nothing worked. Opioids at least knocked me out so that I didn’t notice the pain.

    Eventually the triptan Maxalt worked for me and I took it 10-15 times per month with fairly good relief.
    About 7 years ago I entered a clinical trial for occipital nerve simulation: life-changing with only 6-8 episodes per month, which I treated with Maxalt. Unfortunately, the company stopped the trial, but I kept the implant.

    Three years ago, I had a heart attack … caused by the triptan. This is a fairly rare side effect. So now I’m back to opioids when the pain is bad enough.

    I sympathize with everyone who suffers from this debilitating disease.

    Hm…. One 1998 study* shows there’s a theoretical risk of coronary spasm in patients with established heart disease, and that cardiac events after taking triptans may rarely occur, but I’ve never heard they might actually cause cardiac issues. -rc

    *(Its journal article has the first page displayed, but to get it all is expensive.)

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    • I don’t have heart disease, confirmed by cardiac cath which showed the coronary spasms occurring during this episode. The doctors were amazed by what we were seeing.

      As one of my medic instructors liked to say, “The body has not read the manual.” There’s always the possibility of something unexpected! -rc

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  11. I’ve passed this on to my sibling to see if any of your remedies can help her with her 50-year-long torment.

    Good luck to her! -rc

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  12. About me: 42yr old male living in the Houston area. I started getting classic migraines in high school in the 90s. Scary as hell when you don’t know what’s going on.

    Probably scared my wife too the first time I had one around her, but she was super helpful and didn’t let it become awkward when I had to unexpectedly crash at her place — we were still only dating at the time.

    In my case I would look forward to vomiting because it meant I was about to pass out and stop hurting. I say pass out because when I wake up I have zero concept of how long I was out. It’s usually about 4 hours though.

    Sumatriptan injections were new at the time so we tried them. They did nothing to help with the migraine and instead just piled on more symptoms like the feeling of burning/stinging skin (esp in the scalp), muscle cramping and twitching, and general anxiety. No thanks!

    Now when I see the aura starting, I quickly take 800mg ibuprofen and drink something with caffeine, then find somewhere dark and quiet to lay down. Doctors had told me that the migraine itself is caused by blood vessels contracting in the brain, while caffeine causes them to dilate. Not to mention that Excedrin migraine is basically just that: ibuprofen & caffeine. It takes the edge off the pain and most of the time I don’t feel the need to vomit. I eventually just pass out for a couple hours and wake up feeling a lot better.

    Never did find a trigger such as food or stress or anything. There’s been a few times where I wake up in the morning after an uneventful night’s sleep and less than 20 minutes later I have the aura starting. Ugh….

    Now that I’m in my 40s the frequency has gone way down — only a couple times a year compared to at least one a week in my teens. I just hope my kids don’t have them. It’s bad enough my 11yr old daughter was just diagnosed with epilepsy.

    I don’t drink caffeinated beverages (love coffee and tea, but use decaf). That way when I do start a migraine I can use caffeine as a drug, and 9 times out of 10 it’ll abort the headache. It’s that 1 leftover time that I have to resort to a triptan or opiate. -rc

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    • I weaned myself off caffeine several years ago as I had built up quite a tolerance. At my “peak” I was drinking almost 2L of mountain dew every day! Now it actually has an effect on me when I need it.

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  13. Migraines suck and most people just don’t understand how debilitating they can be. Thank God for modern medicine.

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  14. Hell. That’s what it’s like to suffer from migraines.

    I suffered migraines from an early age through my thirties. 20 days out of the month for a couple years at its worst. At least when you vomit you know it’s going to start subsiding. The first Rx that worked for me was Imitrex, then it became available in injection form (preloaded pen you jab yourself with). It always gave me a really weird head feeling and then felt like little pins & needles poking my scalp everywhere. (My ex told me it sounded like tripping on acid). Then Maxalt came out with a dissolvable pill and that was a lifesaver. I do believe mine were triggered mostly around that time time of month and stress. I’m 54 now and barely get them anymore. Guess menopause has been good for something.

    Maxalt is another triptan (rizatriptan). Some migraineurs find that some triptans work better than others. Unless there’s an allergic reaction, it’s best to try several to find what works best. -rc

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  15. My migraines started about a month after a car accident in 1989. I spent five days in the hospital while they poked around and checked my brain for anything obvious. No luck. Other than a sinus infection, my brain looked okay. I had a migraine for two years. They finally found something that treated it, but I had to stop it either because it was recalled, or I developed a tolerance.

    They tried me on Imitrex, but it didn’t work for me. Neither did Maxalt, Neurontin, Topamax, or Depakote, although I’ve been on some of the meds for other reasons too.

    It feels similar to Randy’s description. Like someone took a rusty tire iron, and shoved it into my head so the rust scraped the back of my eyeballs. When it got so bad I couldn’t keep meds down, I used to get a shot of Compazine and Demerol, and sleep it off. Worked great for me. Then everybody went crazy over opioids (despite the fact that it was six months to two years between visits), and now they want to give me the “migraine cocktail”. So far, I haven’t had much luck with those either. It’s worse when they think it’s a good idea to add steroids. I can’t sleep, and it’s worse. The last time I ended up in the ER with a migraine, the dr accused me of being a drug seeker despite having never been there before for migraine treatment. Needless to say, we’re not friends. I just stayed home and threw up everything for three or so days. I couldn’t keep down meds long enough to help.

    About six months ago, my new neurologist put me on Aimovig because I’m more than a little needle-shy, and didn’t think getting a face full of Botox would be the best for me. So far, I’ve only had two migraines in those six months. I’m ecstatic! Zomig has been my rescue med for almost 20 years, but if I can’t keep it down, it does no good. With the Aimovig, even if the migraine comes, the nausea is greatly diminished so it stays down. The only side effect is the joint pain from the Zomig.

    My triggers are changes in air pressure (spring and fall are murder), alcohol (I didn’t drink much before, now I don’t drink at all), loud noises, and bright lights (“blue” headlights are the devil). It’s been a long journey, but I just worry I’ll develop tolerance. I hate that my autoimmune disease attacks the good stuff too.

    Zomig (zolmitriptan) is (you guessed it!) another triptan. I also have trouble in the spring and fall. So far this spring has been pretty good, though! -rc

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    • I forgot that I get both kinds of migraines. Those with auras, and those without. At least with the auras, I had some warning. One of my dogs could also alert me to coming migraines (about 20 minutes), but it was usually the “common” ones. I had nine years of 80% correct alerts, and it was pretty rad. How she knew (scent? physical tell? magic?), I don’t know, but other people I talked to were pretty sure it was scent.

      What I do find completely odd, is that my blood pressure has no link. I recently had trouble with sky high blood pressure, and everyone was surprised that I had absolutely no headache. The only time I had a headache was when I hadn’t had food for two days because of scheduling conflicts for testing. As soon as I ate, I was fine.

      Very cool about the dog! Definitely get your blood pressure controlled. You do NOT want a stroke. -rc

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  16. I be been on Amovig for 18 months and have head only a few serious migraines since then. I take baclofen when I do get one and it usually helps. There are some new drugs like Amovig and Nurtec that were created to treat migraines, not just used for migraines. Talk to your doctor or research them if you can. I only pay $5/month for Amovig due to a manufacturer’s program.

    Baclofen is used to treat muscle spasticity such as from a spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. I’ve never heard of it being used for migraine. I presume it’s an “off label” use if so. -rc

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