What's a migraine headache like? Migraine headaches affect more women than men, and each woman who lives with this medical condition likely has a different answer to that question. Though they are not usually a threat to your overall health, migraine attacks can greatly affect your day-to-day life.
If you've never had one, a migraine headache is usually an intense, throbbing pain on one side or sometimes both sides of the head. Besides pain, women might experience nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people may also see spots or flashing lights (called an "aura") or lose their ability to see for a short time. The bottom line: Migraine headaches can be quite severe and disabling.
To better understand what migraine attacks can be like for women, we interviewed three women about their personal experiences. See what Noelle, Mary, and Katie* have to say about migraine triggers, living with migraine, and more.
- We don't know the exact cause of migraine headaches, but experts do know that people with migraine react to a variety of factors and events, called triggers. Here's what Noelle has to say about triggers she experiences: "A big trigger for me is a change in the weather, which I unfortunately can't control. My doctor suggested a food diary. I didn't find it that helpful because I don't eat the same things often enough. But I did learn to avoid peanut butter and MSG because they seem more likely to trigger a migraine attack for me." Learn more about migraine triggers.
- There are many forms of migraine headaches. The two forms seen most often are migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Migraine with aura affects the senses. Noelle explains: "I remember the first time I had a one — I was terrified. I thought I was going blind. When one hits, I suddenly have trouble focusing my eyes. If I'm reading, the letters no longer appear sharp — there's a blur to everything. That's my first clue. Then the aura starts. It's this tiny circle, generally in my left field of vision. It's small at first, but then it gets bigger and bigger until it's a zigzag line, like little mountains going across my line of vision. It's bright, and it flashes, which makes me feel sick to my stomach. Generally, my aura lasts for about 15 minutes. Then the headache kicks in, which can last for several hours or a full day." Learn more about the different types of migraine headaches.
- Women can work with their doctor or nurse to make a plan for managing migraine attacks. You can also take steps at home, like taking medicine your doctor or nurse has prescribed for migraine headaches, drinking fluids, and resting in a dark, quiet room. Mary shares how she deals with a migraine attack: "I usually feel extreme pressure on my forehead, so I manage the pain with over-the-counter pain medicine. Ideally, I'm then able to go to a dark room where I can lie down and put a cold compress over my eyes. But I don't always have that luxury. I'm often at work or with my kids, so I take my meds and hope for the best. Sometimes, I'll drink a soda for the caffeine, a recommendation from one of my doctors that helps me. But there are times when my migraine headaches are so debilitating that I can't just power through. I have to stop working or I put on a TV show for the kids so that I can shut down for a little while." Learn ways to manage migraine attacks.
- Compared with migraine headaches, tension-type headaches are generally less severe and rarely disabling. Mary explains how she tells the difference: "The severity tells me whether it's a migraine or a tension headache. I can tell from how I feel afterward, too. I get what I call a "migraine hangover." You don't fully feel like yourself. Nothing hurts, but it's like you're recovering from something. Once the headache is gone, it still takes me awhile to get back to 100%." Learn how to tell if you're having a migraine headache.
- Migraine has no cure. But migraine headaches can be managed with help from your doctor or nurse. Katie explains how she treats her migraine symptoms when they start: "I've been getting migraine headaches since I was 8 or 9, but I didn't start getting them frequently until I got older. I started a prescription to help with the pain in my 20s, but it made me feel nauseous and on edge. I worked with my doctor to find a better option for me, and for the past 8 years, I've been taking a prescription medicine that stops the pain before it starts when I'm experiencing a migraine attack. I'm more comfortable knowing I have this prescription. It makes me feel like an attack won't get in the way of my normal life." Learn more about how migraine headaches are treated.
Remember, every woman's experience with migraine headaches is unique. These are just some examples of how migraine headaches affect women. You can learn more about migraine headaches, what causes migraine headaches, when to seek help, and more.