15 Migraine Symptoms That Aren't 'Just a Headache'
One of the most frequent mistakes people make about migraine is that it’s “just a bad headache” — that the term “migraine” literally refers to really intense head pain. Though migraine attacks frequently do include pain in the head and/or neck, there are many additional symptoms migraineurs experience. This is because migraine is a neurological condition, and as migraine expert Peter Goadsby told Migraine Again, “One of the very big myths about migraine is that it’s just a headache.”
“Migraine is a disorder of the brain, and it’s a disorder not just of sensory attention,” Goadsby said. “What’s often forgotten are the phases that occurred before a migraine, the premonitory or prodromal phase of the attack where sufferers will have cognitive dysfunction.”
This isn’t to say that headaches aren’t painful and disabling in their own right! But it’s important that people understand how migraine differs from headaches, so migraineurs can receive the right support and treatment.
We asked our Mighty community to share a symptom of migraine they experience that isn’t head pain. Not everyone with migraine gets all of these symptoms, but they all illustrate the wide range of effects migraine can have on the body.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
It’s not clear exactly why nausea so often accompanies migraine, but it may be linked to brain and inner ear disturbances.
“Nausea — the most frustrating is vomiting after taking migraine medicine, even if the vomiting starts half an hour after taking a pill, the anxiety of not wanting to overdo it with meds (like how much actually stayed in your system…) but wanting to feel relief from the pain. It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of thing.” — Jenny S.
Fatigue is a common migraine symptom, and one small recent study found a possible reason why: during migraine attacks, study participants’ dopamine levels fell dramatically, which could account for the fatigue.
“Extreme fatigue. I already deal with fatigue due to other health issues, but when I have a day where it’s literally painful to keep my eyes open, I know I’ll wake up with a migraine the next day.” — Kari R.
There’s a whole community of migraineurs ready to support you through your migraine journey. Download the free Mighty app to ask questions and get support.
3. Loss of Vision
Ocular migraines are characterized by visual disturbances including loss of vision for a short period of time. Two type of ocular migraine are retina migraine and migraine with aura. Recently, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin made headlines when she walked off in the middle of her show because she had an ocular migraine and couldn’t see.
“When I was pregnant I got ocular migraines. I didn’t get pain in my head, I just went blind momentarily and lost my vocabulary… I was at work and suddenly couldn’t see. I turned to my supervisor in the next cubicle and just said ‘Joe… I can’t see… IDK what to do.’ Called the clinic and they said to go to the ER so I left work and by the time I got to the hospital, my vision was back so I thought I’d go to the urgent care instead. But they asked me to sign in to a kiosk thing and I couldn’t remember my name or social security number or anything. Admitted me to the hospital then and there. Everything was fine. Brought in a neurologist who said it was just a harmless ocular migraine.” — Sandy M.
4. Ringing in Ears
Tinnitus, or hearing sounds without any external noise stimulus, can be associated with migraine. Some scientists believe central sensitization, or heightened sensitivity of the brain and spinal cord to things that shouldn’t hurt, may be the culprit.
“Ringing in my ears. It feels like an annoying device that can’t be turned off because it’s in my damn face.” — Ami C.
5. Numbness and Tingling
“Sometimes my arms, fingers, and lips go numb.” — Michele W.
“Tingles on one side of the body.” — Shana P.
6. Sensitivity to Light
Photophobia is one of the most common symptoms of migraine — so common that special glasses have been developed that help prevent light from triggering migraines. In fact, if you have photophobia and no head pain, you still might be diagnosed with migraine.
“I am super sensitive to light on a 24/7 basis. I wear sunglasses even indoors. Sometimes that doesn’t help me because if the light ‘catches’ my eyes a certain way, then the migraine comes out to play full force!” — Gina F.
7. Inability to Speak
“Transient aphasia. It makes it super difficult to find words and talk sometimes and can last for hours. For me I can read, write and understand language but I cannot speak whole words or phrases and sometimes I switch words for others.” — Rebecca A.
“Aphasia — I am not able to form my words clearly, and slur them. I also cannot understand what someone is saying to me.” — Gina F.
8. Uncontrollable Yawning
Yawning is a surprisingly common symptom of migraine, often occurring in the pre-headache phase a few hours or days before the migraine attack begins. One 2006 study found that 36 percent of migraine patients said yawning was a sign they had a migraine coming. A possible reason is the changes in dopamine activity in the brain.
“One of the most confusing yet consistent symptoms I get is uncontrollable yawning! Without fail, I will end up yawning my head off for about 10 minutes before the visual auras start. Of course it always catches me off guard until I start seeing the auras, like somehow the yawning also makes me forget it’s related to my migraines. It really sucks too because I have severe TMJD and too much yawning will actually dislocate my jaw.” — Janessa O.
Anger and irritability are common features of the prodome phase before the migraine attack.
“I develop anxiety, intolerance to noise/someone talking and anger — when I start becoming short-tempered over nothing, I know a migraine is about to begin.” — Selma F.
“After I had head trauma I could tell when I was going to get a migraine because my temper would be terrible! I would snap at everyone constantly.” — Edel D.
10. Frequent Urination
A frequent need to urinate and other fluid disturbances like increased thirst are sometimes seen during migraines.
“Probably my most abstract symptoms are numbness/tingling in my face and nose and very frequent urination. Nothing is more annoying when you just want to lay down and you have to pee every 30-60 minutes.” — Andrea S.
11. Stroke-Like Symptoms
Hemiplegic migraines and migraine with aura can be mistaken for a stroke due to symptoms like weakness on one side of the body, slurred speech, disorientation and vision loss.
“I lose all feeling on the right side of my body and my face droops as well, it was so severe one time that my university rang an ambulance because they thought I was having a stroke.” — Nikki D.
12. Sensitivity to Smells
Just as migraine can alter your vision, it can also affect your sense of smell. Migraineurs may be very sensitive to certain smells, experience “phantom” smells, or have an overall increased sense of smell.
“I get extremely sensitive to smells… I feel them 10 times stronger, but also my brain plays tricks on me… Sometimes I smell something burning, like plastic melting, or like burnt fuel… And it’s all in my head. Or should I say in my nose?” — Claudia G.
13. Visual Auras
Visual auras frequently accompany migraines and can include any number of strange symptoms, like blind spots, sparkles, dots, shimmering and tunnel vision.
“I used to have visual auras.. But the weird ones! I see how everything gets distorted… Once I watched how the head of my friend melted in front of me. The first time was really scary.” — Claudia G.
“I get an aura that I’ve been able to best explain as a TV test pattern in one eye. Once that goes away, the throbbing pain starts.” — Mandy R.
“Tunnel vision. It’s like everything around me is dark but someone shines a flashlight through a magnifying glass and I’m supposed to look through it.” — Ang N.
14. Song Stuck in Head
Some migraineurs have reported the odd sensation of having an “earworm,” or song stuck in their head, as part of their migraine. Earworms are the result of brain networks involved in perception, emotion, memory and spontaneous thought.
“Songs playing in my head over and over again, ad nauseum. Each migraine has its own song and it drives me crazy. It adds to the nausea and pounding in my head. No amount of distraction stops it and my neurologist can’t explain it. It’s terrible.” — Molly D.
15. Brain Fog
The difficulty concentrating and focusing known as brain fog is a common symptom of migraine.
“A brain fog. Where you can’t think clearly and everything feels a bit surreal.” – The Invisible Hypothyroidism
While migraines often include some form of head pain, there are many more symptoms that come along for the ride. What symptoms besides a headache do you experience when you have a migraine? Share in the comments below.