We often hear people say that they didn’t realize they had migraine because their “headaches aren’t as bad as other people’s.” Sadly, we also hear people telling others that they “don’t really have migraine” for the same reason. However, it is a myth that migraine is the same for everyone; migraine is better considered as a spectrum disease! We know that about 40 million people in the U.S. are currently living with migraine, and that it is a complex neurological disease. However, we also know that symptoms, attack triggers, frequency, severity, and responses to treatments all vary by person. In fact, people with migraine can experience migraine differently even if they share common symptoms and triggers, and even within the same family.
A migraine attack is caused by a “trigger.” There are common migraine triggers such as stress, lack of sleep, and extreme weather changes. However, triggers are different for everyone. While some people with migraine have fewer attacks in the winter, others have more attacks. The use of caffeine may trigger a migraine attack in some people, while it may help reduce or stop them in others. Similarly, food triggers and even alcohol are far from the same for everyone. In addition, migraine attacks are often triggered by hormonal fluctuations in women, but not all women experience hormonal-related attacks.
Symptoms of migraine can vary from person to person, and they can appear in many different ways. A severe headache is the most common and well-known migraine attack symptom, but additional symptoms can include:
- Aura: Some individuals experience a visual or sensory aura before or during a migraine attack. This aura can consist of flashing lights, blind spots, or tingling sensations, or other visual or sensory disturbances. However, many people with migraine do not experience aura.
- Nausea and Vomiting: Nausea and vomiting are common but migraine symptoms. However, not everyone experiences them symptoms, they may not occur in every migraine attack, and the severity of them varies tremendously.
- Sensitivity to the environment: Sensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia), and smells (osmophobia) are often associated with migraine. They can trigger or worsen symptoms, and for some are the first symptom of a migraine attack. Each of us responds differently to these sensitivities at different times. The smell of a camp fire, for example, may not trigger someone today, but tomorrow it will.
- Neck Pain: Neck pain and stiffness can accompany migraine attacks in some individuals but may be absent in others
- Attack Frequency: Migraine attacks can occur anywhere from once a year, or even less for some people, to a few times a year, several times a month, or even daily.
- Attack Intensity: Pain can be dull, aching, throbbing, sharp, stabbing or pounding. Sometimes the pain is manageable and people are able to push through to complete daily tasks. However, sometimes the pain is so intense it can bring all activity to a complete halt or even end up with a trip to the emergency room or urgent care.
- Attack Length: While most migraine attacks last from 4-72 hours, even this is not the same for everyone, with some people having attacks that last several days, weeks, or even months.
The treatment for migraine disease is not one-size-fits all. There are a variety of over the counter and prescription medications, FDA-cleared medical devices, complimentary therapies, and lifestyle changes that can help. Everyone reacts differently to treatments – some will experience intolerable or even dangerous side effects, others may have no side effects and a variety of levels of relief. For the lucky few, known as super responders, migraine attacks can almost completely stop! Sadly, it can take a long time before you find the best treatment plan for your migraine attacks, and even then, it is not uncommon to find that the treatment plan stops working after several months or years.
Not the Same for Everyone
So, is migraine the same for everyone? Absolutely not! Each person has a unique experience, and that adds to the complexity of managing this disease. It also adds to the complexity of diagnosis and initial treatment with some people believing that because their “headaches aren’t as bad as someone elses” they aren’t really migraine. The bottom line is, we all experience triggers, symptoms and treatment responses differently. We encourage you to talk to your doctor about what YOUR migraine attacks are like, and partner together with them to come up with a treatment plan that works best for YOU. And if you aren’t sure whether you have migraine, take our Migraine Quiz and then talk with your doctor about your symptoms so that you can get an accurate diagnosis!
Let us know!
What migraine triggers or symptoms do you experience that others may not? What tools do you have in your treatment toolbox? Do you find yourself comparing YOUR migraine to other people’s or… have other people done that to you?!