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They might start differently for everyone, but the result is usually the same: a severe headache with intense side effects. Yes, we’re talking about migraines.

While most people think migraines are a painful type of headache, migraine (yep, singular!) is actually a disease that afflicts about 12 percent of the country—women more so than men. Because it is usually diagnosed by reported symptoms (rather than through blood work or other tests), and because those symptoms vary from person to person, it can be tough to pin down. Non-sufferers often mistakenly write migraines off as "just a bad headache" or an excuse to get out of something. 

“There are different things that can cause headaches, which is another reason why migraines are complex—they tend to be very individual,” says Audrey Halpern, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

We asked five sufferers to describe what migraines feel like to them. Here's what they told us and what our experts had to say about it.

"My Head Feels Like It's in a Vise"

Migraine Head in Vice
Illustration: Kim Steinhilber

"Migraines happen [for me] during times of stress, changing weather, exercise exertion, or even eating the wrong food. My head feels like it's in a vise and someone is pushing the sides of my head together." — Dan

Migraines can be triggered by a wide variety of factors—everything from stress to exercise to fragrances. Even certain food and beverages, such as processed meats and cheeses, can play a role, says Daniel Franc, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center.

"People should track their migraines for several weeks or a month to see if there are correlations," says Louise Klebanoff, M.D., a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "Women often have them with menstrual cycles, but other triggers can be artificial sweeteners or alcohol."

Halpern suggests keeping a migraine calendar or diary so you can track your triggers.

Both Halpern and Klebanoff say that certain behavioral changes may help alleviate migraines or cut down on the frequency. "Go to bed at the same time daily, eat regular meals, stay hydrated, do some type of regular aerobic exercise, and avoid your known triggers," Klebanoff says.

"Like When a Light Fixture Starts to Go Out"

Migraine Lights Out
Illustration: Kim Steinhilber

"I suffer from ocular [retinal] migraines and have had them for years. The best way to describe what I see is a large light fixture starting to go out. I see flashes or flickers. It starts in a corner and then overtakes my vision." — Stephanie

Some migraines occur in distinct stages. Premonitory symptoms may appear up to 48 hours before the onset of the actual migraine and can include food cravings, mood swings, and uncontrollable yawning.

Next there may be a more noticeable warning sign—called an aura—which is what Stephanie is describing above. “Some people say they see zigzag lines or a shimmering crescent that moves through their vision,” Halpern says. “Sometimes it's only their peripheral vision; other people get blurry, wavy, or kaleidoscope vision—those are some of the most commonly described symptoms.”

Halpern says the symptoms are reversible, usually last no more than an hour, and are typically followed by the onset of the headache.

In some cases, Halpern says, people just get the aura and never get a headache. But most experience the actual onset of migraine pain. Some also have postdrome symptoms, where they feel confused or exhausted, or have a stiff neck for up to a day later. 

"It's Like I've Been Staring at the Sun"

Migraine Staring at the Sun
Illustration: Kim Steinhilber

"When I get a migraine, it's almost like my entire brain is nauseated and crying out in pain. Everything from my neck up feels battered and bruised. The back of my eyes pulsate with pain, and it’s like I’ve been staring at the sun for an hour." — Jeremy

Though it might feel like your whole head is about to explode, migraines typically affect only one side of the head, Franc says. What’s also surprising is that migraines frequently go undiagnosed, even though they're incredibly painful.

“Sometimes patients think they have an eyeball problem, or they'll go to an ENT [ear, nose, and throat doctor] because they think it's a sinus infection,” Klebanoff says. Because of the additional symptoms (like the eye pain described above), some people don't immediately think it's a head issue. 

“Like I'm on a Ship During a Storm”

Migraine Ship During Storm
Illustration: Kim Steinhilber

"Most of the times when I lie down, I have this overwhelming feeling that I’m on a ship during a storm, rocking back and forth. Other times I feel like I'm in a barrel rolling down a hill." — Cody

Fortunately migraine sufferers now have treatment options beyond lying down in a dark room. “[Lying down] certainly helps, but that’s not a great way to run your life,” Klebanoff says. “The recommendation to grin and bear it is not a recommendation I make."

So what can you do? Depending on the severity and frequency of your migraines, your doc may offer you abortive or preventive drugs. Abortive drugs handle the migraine when it’s already started—they abort the migraine. “Sometimes it's a normal over-the-counter anti-inflammatory,” Klebanoff says. In more severe cases, your doc will typically recommend a prescription, Klebanoff says.

Some of the most commonly used prescriptions constrict blood vessels and act on your body’s serotonin levels, which drop during a migraine attack.

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