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5 Ways I Know a Migraine, Not 'Just a Headache,' Is Coming On

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Have you ever been at work, or hanging out with friends and family, when you close your eyes, squeeze the bridge of your nose and quietly say, “I have a migraine coming on” — only to hear those famous words, “It’s only a headache,” or “Well, it’s not here yet.” 

“Just a headache.” Then why do I have to wear sunglasses at night? Why do I buy earplugs in bulk? Why do I have dark curtains in my bedroom when I love the light? Why am I starting to feel hot and sweaty and have the urge to throw up? And what about that wave of dizziness? And my “migraine fog?” Do you get all of that with just a headache? I don’t think so.

People that have never experienced a migraine don’t understand that a migraine is so much more than a headache. It comes with uncomfortable symptoms that affect our lives. We cannot just pop an aspirin and go on about our business. That’s not how it works. Even the World Health Organization understands its seriousness and has listed migraines as among the most disabling illnesses. And yet people still think you can wish away the pain in your head. And what about the other symptoms? Do I imagine them, too? No.

Here are five ways I know a migraine is coming on:

1. I usually know when I’m getting ready to get a migraine because my smell will become super sensitive. It’s almost like a super power. I can be in the other room and smell certain foods and spices that I wouldn’t normally smell. And if someone is messing with cleaning products, paint, glue or even dryer sheets, I can smell them from the next room where normally I wouldn’t be able to.

2. There’s also the black birds. I’ll be doing whatever it is I’m doing, and then I’ll start to see the remnants of a flock of black birds flying by. When I first had this aura, I wasn’t sure what it was. I was literally looking out the window and thought that a bunch of birds had flown by. But then it kept happening, and I was nowhere near any windows. I thought I had a brain tumor or something. Then after experiencing it before a migraine a few more times, I realized what it was. It was my aura. So when I saw birds fluttering by while I was taking a shower, I didn’t think anything of it. It was the calm before the storm.

3. This one might make you laugh, but I also tend to run to the bathroom an awful lot in that first 24 hours before the true pain hits. This is usually when I say to myself, “I’m so glad that I’m not alone in this.” And yet, I feel for anyone that experiences the pain of a migraine and its abundance of overlapping symptoms.

4. My brain starts to shut down. I get this cloudiness in my head, and I have to try and think about every little thing that I want to say and do. And then that just speeds up the ache even more. My brain gets so cloudy that I can actually listen to someone talk or watch a television show and not hear or see anything, because while this is going on, I don’t register much of anything. And if I try, it’s pain and total confusion. It’s safe to say that my comprehension of all things completely disappears.

And during all of this loveliness, I get hot, sweaty, dizzy and nauseated. And it sounds like people are yelling at me. I can be two feet away from someone, and if they’re talking I have to back up while I’m giving them the, “Why are you screaming”  look. Then they whisper. For that I’m grateful, but it’s honestly best if they just stop talking until another time. 

5. I get very irritable. I reach that point where I am impatient and I don’t play well with others. So I remove myself from their presence.

If it is nighttime and I’m out somewhere, then the sunglasses go on. I have become a wonderful sunglasses-at-night driver. I’m not saying that I condone it. I don’t. It’s dangerous. But when it’s the only way I  can get home, then I do. Fortunately for me, mine are prescription and made just for that purpose.

So then it’s time for me to take my meds, grab an ice pack and hit the bed. I prefer the ice pack behind my neck, but sometimes the pain is so bad that I have to put it on my forehead. I lay there in my dark room, while the cold ice melts behind my neck, and I wait. And once I awaken I then deal with the migraine for the next three days. Some of my other symptoms will have gone away when I awaken. Like the black birds will be gone. I won’t be running to the bathroom. My irritability will have dwindled. But the pain will remain. If I’m lucky it will subside some each day. Most likely it won’t. But one can hope. Can’t they?

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Originally published: May 13, 2016
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