Headaches in general suck. But for people who deal with migraines, the discomfort can blow more typical, garden-variety head pain out of the water. Even though a lot of people use “migraine” and “headache” interchangeably, not all headaches would be classified as migraines.
Migraines differ from person to person, but the pain associated with migraines tends to be pretty distinct. Put simply, “A migraine is a severe headache with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and/or sound sensitivity,” Kevin Weber, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
Some migraine experts think of tension headaches (which are the type that anyone can get, for instance, the headache you might feel after sitting in front of your computer at work all day, not drinking enough water) as milder versions of migraines, all on the same continuum, Dr. Weber explains; others believe they are two distinct headache types. “Tension headaches typically do not have much nausea, photophobia, or phonophobia,” Dr. Weber says, referring to the extreme sensitivity to light and sound that can often accompany migraines. “They shouldn't have any vomiting and they are usually less severe.”
Migraines tend to fluctuate in frequency and severity throughout a person's life. A single migraine episode can last hours or even days and can go through different stages, too. Researchers don’t fully understand what causes migraines but believe it has something to do neurological abnormalities in the brain that trigger migraines, as SELF reported previously. There also seems to be a large genetic component, “Although many of my patients aren't able to identify a family member with migraine,” Dr. Weber notes.
With a typical headache you may be able to drink some water, pop an over-the-counter pain med, and power through. But in the case of a typical migraine, your standard headache treatment probably won't work. “Most people would prefer to lay down and even go to sleep,” Dr. Weber describes. “My patients tend to describe migraine pain as severe pain that is crushing, pounding, and/or throbbing. Some say it radiates from front to back, or vice versa.”
That sounds about right: When we asked 13 people who have dealt with migraines throughout their lives to describe the sensation they feel in their head and body, words like “crushing,” “pounding,” and even “exploding” came up quite a bit.
Keep reading for more vivid details of their migraine experiences to get a sense of what this particular type of headache really feels like.
1. “The top of my skull feels like it's being pressed down on.” —Fernando, 32
“I can feel the pounding in my temples, or in my eyes, depending on where the migraine is. If it's a migraine on one side, that eye gets very watery and my temple throbs, and the top of my skull feels like it's being pressed down on. I definitely have to avoid looking directly at light. Thankfully, I do not feel nauseous.
“With one particularly bad migraine, I could not get up from bed because every time I was upright, seated or standing, the pain [would be] in the left side of my head. I had to stay in bed lying on the side that did not hurt, while manually massaging my left temple until it had subsided slightly.”
2. “I have to avoid all light or it just feels like someone is stabbing me.” —Elizabeth, 34
“I started getting migraines in high school but I didn’t understand what they were and took an unhealthy amount of [OTC pain medication]. My friend’s dad (a pediatrician) told me to see a neurologist. I did when I got to New York for college and was diagnosed with migraines without aura and chronic daily headache. The first symptoms were pain and nausea, always around one eye. My neck also hurt all the time.
“I first start to feel tightness and pain in my neck, and I stretch it and roll it, trying to decide if [a migraine] is coming. Then I generally get sweaty and nauseous and anxious, a bit like I’m having a panic attack. Sometimes I get weird symptoms like a runny nose and sneezing. Then the pain starts, usually over one eye, and it feels like my head is going to explode. I have to avoid all light or it just feels like someone is stabbing me.
“Last year I had a big meeting and was taking an Uber to work. I woke up with a migraine but thought I caught it in time with medication. Ten minutes into the car ride, the pain got so bad. But we were stuck in traffic on an L.A. freeway. I was meditating and trying anything I could to calm it down but the Uber driver wouldn’t stop talking. Finally, I threw up in my bag—I didn’t want to throw up in the Uber!—and all over my work laptop and papers. It was a nightmare but I was in too much pain to care. I walked into work, washed my bag out and threw out everything, wiped down my laptop (which then didn’t turn on) and went into my meeting.”
3. “It begins to be such intense pain that I feel nauseous.” —Mary, 26
“I tend to get them most often at the end of the day. It starts off with light pain and pressure, always in the front of my head, behind my forehead. As the pain increases, typically over the course of 30 to 45 minutes, it begins to be such intense pain that I feel nauseous. (I have only actually gotten sick a handful of times since I was diagnosed.) Personally, the pain comes in waves with 30 second intervals; it will be intense pain for 30 seconds, then light pain for 30, and back to full intensity.
“One time, I had a migraine at the end of the day in college and when I got home, the pain was coming in such intense waves that I could barely get out of bed. When I stood, the rush of standing up caused so much pain that I threw up. I got back into bed and made my boyfriend push on my forehead because, for some reason, the pressure he applied to my forehead would slightly release the pain. As I tried to fall asleep, I was crying from being in so much pain. I woke multiple times in the night, each time with fewer migraine symptoms, and then had no pain by morning.”
4. “I thought I was having a stroke or some kind of brain failure because my vision went out in my right eye.” —Dominique, 28
“I didn't know the difference between a headache and a migraine until I was older. They were just ‘bad headaches’ to me. It wasn't until college that I got my first aura migraine, which was the scariest symptom ever. I thought I was having a stroke or some kind of brain failure because my vision went out in my right eye.
“[Migraines are] so hard to describe; sometimes they feel like a splitting sensation through my eye and temple, extending toward the back of my head. Sometimes it's localized to one side; other times it's the full head. It’s such a wild thing to have this pain with no trauma, because it feels like an injury. Typically for me it's either behind my eyes, in my temples, or in the back of my skull (or a combination of those three).
5. “The sensation is like a helmet on your head that just keeps getting tighter.” —Lauren, 29
“The best way I can describe it for myself is that it’s such debilitating pain that it takes over everything else. I have to vomit, my neck tightens up, I become sensitive to light and smells (the smell of popcorn is a death sentence). Even voices can make it worse. The sensation is like a helmet on your head that just keeps getting tighter, and you feel like your head will explode.
“In December, I was driving back from the University of Michigan after being at a conference. I didn’t have my prescription on me and I had a headache from the anxiety I felt all day and lack of the right food, etc. Around 3 P.M., the migraine hit. But I had no choice other than to drive (in a snowstorm) the two hours back home. I had to pull over and vomit off the side of the highway. The rest of the drive home I honestly almost blacked out because the pain was so intense. My head felt like someone was taking a hammer to it. I remember calling my husband crying like a baby.”
6. “I have to be in a completely dark room with a cold compress and hope to fall asleep until it passes.” —Clare, 27
“At first they were extremely scary and I thought I was going blind, as I would have blurred and almost complete loss of vision. I have to be in a completely dark room with a cold compress and hope to fall asleep until it passes. One time, I was in the shower and almost slipped and fell because of my loss of vision. I cried out and one of my roommates came running and she helped walk me to my bed.
“It’s honestly difficult to manage [migraines] as they come at random times every few months. However, I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms and hopefully nip it in the bud before it gets too bad.”
7. “I would rather have a combination of a stomach bug and the flu for a month straight over a migraine cluster.” —Manny, 27
“I started getting migraines the first year I got out of college. I officially received a diagnosis a year later when I finally went to the doctor. I was staring at my computer screen and I remember a strange feeling, like my neck was tensing up and my vision had a strange crack in it. I now know that this is what’s called an aura.
“A migraine feels like someone grabbed a hot rod and pressed it against one side of your head. It’s a pulsating pain that you feel with every heartbeat mixed with intense nausea and dizziness. The worst part is that you never know when it’s going to happen or how intense it’s going to be when it does. I’ve had migraines during work, on dates, in class, and on vacation, and it always ruins the day.
“To put it in perspective, I would rather have a combination of a stomach bug and the flu for a month straight over a migraine cluster. At least with the stomach bug and the flu you know what to expect and can mitigate that.”
8. “The first time it happened I thought I'd been roofied.” —Ilana, 29
“Ocular migraines are like seeing the world in slow motion. The first time it happened I thought I'd been roofied. I moved my hand in front of my face and there were sixteen hands trailing in front of me. It was bizarre, especially since I wasn't in pain like you would be with a normal migraine. Migraines are slow building—like a pressure in the back of your head that gets worse and worse each day until it feels like your eye will pop out of their sockets. And nothing makes that pressure go away. Migraines can feel like someone punched me in the eye, or maybe like I held my breath for too long, or like I'm being held upside down and all the blood is rushing to my head.
“One incident with my ocular migraines was at a park on a sunny day. I was walking and suddenly this dark figure walked into my line of vision and out. It [looked like] a black shape of a person, but I was totally alone. I'd only ever seen small shapes, like balls of light or dark, but this looked like a man. It totally creeped me out.”
9. “It's as if there's a glass shattered in front of me and I can't see.” —Cory, 26
“I remember having my first migraine when I was in fifth grade, but then didn't have one again until I was around 22. Since migraines run in my family, and I come from a family of doctors, I was able to sort of self-diagnose. I went to a neurologist, who classified it as a classic migraine.
“The first symptom is a disturbing aura that takes over my vision. It's as if there's a glass shattered in front of me and I can't see. My vision literally disappears or I see a psychedelic pattern. That lasts for about 20 minutes. (I always listen to the Hamilton soundtrack because it distracts me.) Then, the headache comes on one side of my forehead. It’s literally the worst pain you can imagine; I have a really high pain tolerance. Anywhere from 4 to 5 hours later I will get really nauseous and then vomit. After I puke, I usually feel better, and almost deliriously happy that it's over.
“I got three in one day when I was on vacation in Hawaii. That was horrible because I didn't have my medication with me. I was in so much pain, just weeping in the hotel room like a baby and barfing my brains out—or trying to, at least. And I couldn't look at the sunset or scenery because it looked like my aura.”
10. “It honestly feels like I cannot function.” —Emily, 31
“The worst migraine felt like my head was going to explode. I had a ton of pressure in my face, especially around my jaw, and I felt as if I didn't get relief I would throw up. It honestly feels like I cannot function. It's very hard to think or talk to people, especially if I am in the office.
“It depends on the severity, but sometimes a nice shower and a glass of cold water knocks it out. Other times, if it is particularly nasty, I try to sleep it off. Most of the time though, being a new mom, I take a painkiller, power through it, and count the minutes until bedtime.”
11. “It can be so distracting and painful that it's almost impossible to think or carry on a conversation.” —Amanda, 27
“I've always had frequent headaches, but the migraines started around age 22. The first symptom I feel is a severe, piercing pain right between my eyebrows or sometimes what feels like behind my eye sockets. It can be so distracting and painful that it's almost impossible to think or carry on a conversation. Then, my sensitivity to light and smell become increasingly worse, which sometimes will lead to nausea. Often, my migraines seem to come out of nowhere and advance very quickly.
“One distinct memory I have is getting a migraine right before a date. At the time, I was in my apartment finishing getting ready when all of a sudden I keeled over and had a piercing pain in my forehead. I had to turn off all the lights and lay down on my side, practicing slow breathing to try to relieve the pain. I had to cancel the date less than an hour before we were supposed to meet, which was definitely embarrassing, and I lied there on my bed for hours.”
12. “It feels like needles stabbing the back of my eyeballs and enormous pressure surrounding my entire head.” —Cami, 23
“One early morning in high school I couldn’t even open my eyes because of light sensitivity and could not get out of bed to tell my parents. I laid there until someone found me. Every motion hurt, and doing a task such as showering seemed impossible. It feels like needles stabbing the back of my eyeballs and enormous pressure surrounding my entire head.”
13. “Sometimes it feels as if my brain is swelling.” —Sarah, 30
“My migraines started around age 19. I would see flashes or my computer screen would be blurry all of a sudden. Later I learned what I was experiencing was called an aura. After an aura, I’d vomit or dry-heave.
“I feel a sharp pain that comes with pressure all around my head. Sometimes it feels as if my brain is swelling. Light and sounds are the worst. A ‘good’ migraine lasts two days; my worst has lasted five days.
“One time I was out to dinner with a friend. We had Thai. On the way home, as I waited at a red light, the lights on the street began to glow and shine outside of the traffic light itself. I unlocked my front door and ran to the bathroom. Long story short: My Thai dinner was a waste, I ended up not going clubbing with my friend, and I was in bed at 7 P.M. Buzz kill.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.