'It Feels Like An Ice Pick Is Stabbing My Brain'

Photo credit: LaylaBird - Getty Images
Photo credit: LaylaBird - Getty Images

While the term “migraine” often gets thrown around or used interchangeably with “headache,” it’s important to acknowledge that they are not the same thing. Not only are migraines incredibly debilitating, but they are also a major thief of time.

A regular or “tension” headache is a milder pain that most people can work through, while migraine pain is typically more severe, says Malathi Rao, DO, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center. “The pain is very intense and it’s typically on one side of the head, whereas a regular headache can involve both sides,” she explains.

Migraines are also unfortunately accompanied by extra symptoms in addition to head pain, notes Dr. Rao. Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound are often associated with migraine, but some people also experience auras, or visual disturbances, 30 minutes to an hour prior to a migraine attack, she says.

“Auras typically serve as a warning sign that tells a person they might have pain coming later on,” she explains. Depending on the individual, auras consist of visual or neurological symptoms like flashes of light, blind spots, floaters, and in extreme cases, tingling or a loss of movement in the limbs.

If migraine symptoms aren’t bad enough, they also last longer than a typical headache, says Dr. Rao. “The attack can last anywhere from four to seventy-two hours and sometimes they can even last for days,” she explains. Resting in a dark, quiet room, putting an ice pack on your neck, or taking over-the-counter medicines like Excedrin, Ibuprofen, or Tylenol can sometimes help reduce pain and calm symptoms, but it’s also important to talk with your doctor if persistent pain becomes immeasurable, stresses Dr. Rao.

And the truth is, migraine pain is often immeasurable. Read on for vivid details on what migraines truly feel like.

“Everything feels like it takes double the amount of effort." —Danielle, 22

“My migraines feel like someone is using my brain as a drum. They happen on one side of my head, as migraines do, and it makes it hard to see, concentrate, and sometimes even speak. Everything feels like it takes double the amount of effort to do when I have a migraine.

"A couple of weeks ago, I had a migraine for three consecutive days. It's the kind of pain that inhibits you from being capable of doing literally anything. I couldn't think, read, or watch TV. The only thing that would help was sleeping because I couldn't feel it. I would go to sleep with a migraine and pray that when I woke up it would be gone. It's the worst feeling waking up from a migraine.”

"A migraine feels like somebody is trying to scoop your brain out with a rusty spoon." —Hannah, 23

“Migraines aren’t just regular headaches; they’re a neurological disease and they deserve not to be written off. A migraine feels like somebody is trying to scoop your brain out with a rusty spoon. It feels like your head is really heavy, with pressure building up in your eyes, sinuses, and temples. Sitting up or changing altitude at all is excruciating. When I get auras, it’s like staring into a light for a really long time. Everything seems brighter and gets louder.”

"The pain is constant and throbbing." —Jasmine, 29

“When I get a migraine, any environmental stimuli like light, smell, or noise are experienced as a sharp shooting pain throughout the top of my head, above my eyebrows, behind my eyes, and across my temples. The pain is constant and throbbing, and areas like my face, neck, and jaw become very hot. In extreme cases, the pain is accompanied by nausea.

"It’s hard to describe just one instance of a migraine because my migraines are chronic and embedded in every day of my life. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about or deal with my migraines, and I think that’s the most difficult part. My work schedule, travel, and plans with friends are always planned around my migraines because small things like sleeping on a bad pillow or being in the sun for too long can trigger one that lasts for the rest of the day.

"I think one of the worst parts about having chronic migraines is that people don’t really talk about the effect it has on the people close to you. There’s a constant fear that you’re letting people down or inconveniencing their lives because all of a sudden you can’t follow through with your plans or even do simple things like load the dishwasher. I think this is why it’s so important for people with migraines to have understanding and patient people in their lives who don’t let them feel guilty for something they can’t control.”

"Air conditioning cycles sound like small hurricanes." —Adam, 23

“You never think about ambient sound until you experience a migraine in a public setting. When you are sensitive to sound, you hear things that typically go unregistered. Air conditioning, lights, birds, traffic. Everything makes noise. When I get a migraine at a grocery store, I can hear everything. Air conditioning cycles sound like small hurricanes, and the sound of the old lights pierces your eardrums. I rush to the register and throw everything at the cashier, pay, and then slip away into my car. Nothing is better than the silence inside your car.

Typically, I experience deep, pulsating sensations that emanate from the middle of my forehead. The pulsating feeling radiates throughout the entirety of my body, and sometimes my fingers and toes tingle. Depending on the day, I become sensitive to light and or sound. Sometimes I can’t even walk and need to immediately lie down.”

"It feels like built-up pressure and pain." —Jordan, 22

“A migraine feels like this: Imagine there is a person trapped in a closet, they don’t have any wiggle room and they are pushing against the walls, creating immense pressure. Now imagine that wall is your skull. It feels like built-up pressure and pain that needs to be relieved.”

"It ranges from a dull throb to piercing to a vise-like grip."—Jeffrey, 49

“Migraines just suck. They affect all aspects of your life, causing you to withdraw from the world, making you more irritable toward friends and family, and less apt to properly engage or enjoy even the most basic activities.

For me, a migraine ranges from a dull throb along the back of my head above the neck to a piercing throb with pressure directly behind my eyes to a vise-like grip on my temples. I learned to just suffer through mild constant discomfort until it would become too acute.

My biggest issue is that it was often triggered by physical activity. Cardiovascular activity and prolonged high heart rate would just debilitate me for the rest of the day. As a result, I gained a ton of weight and was just generally unfit. But since obtaining successful treatment for my migraines, I’ve been able to work out in earnest, ride my Peloton daily for an hour, and maintain a heart rate in excess of 160 bpm for the duration of my workouts.”

"The right side of my face went numb and I couldn't feel my tongue." —Nicole, 25

“I was studying at the library when all of a sudden my vision seemed weird. I basically couldn’t read anything because there seemed to be flashing lights on the pages preventing me from seeing the words. I then started to get a tingling sensation in my right hand and leg, which quickly turned into my whole arm and leg.

"I started to panic and asked my friend to have 911 on the line in case it was a stroke. At this point I’d never had a migraine and didn’t have enough education to think to go to the hospital. The last thing to happen was that the right side of my face went numb, and I couldn’t feel my tongue. I took Excedrin, turned all the lights off, and tried to stay calm. An hour later I had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had.

"I didn’t find out [my experience] was a migraine until the next time I had one and actually consulted a doctor. At this point in time, I had been on the highest dose estrogen birth control pill in order to help my acne. My doctor quickly took me off high estrogen birth control, and since getting an IUD, I have not had a migraine, but I do fear that it’ll happen again.

"Women should really be educated on the relationship between oral contraceptives and migraines. I am now a medical student and feel the need to spread this awareness so that women are not at risk for very unfortunate situations.”

"I end up secluding myself." —Smriti, 24

“In December 2020, I had a migraine almost every day for the entire month. My stomach lining became irritated as a result of taking too much over-the-counter medication which in turn made me feel nauseous. It’s a vicious cycle. A neurologist had me try different medications which would sometimes result in scary side effects like shortness of breath or chest tightening.

"Migraines are pretty draining for me. Each task requires double the effort and motivation. They also make me feel isolated at times because I end up secluding myself because migraines often put me in a bad mood, and not everyone understands how debilitating they can be.”

"It feels like I need to find the deepest, darkest cave to crawl into." —Julien, 26

“All of a sudden, I’ll get a feeling of incredible nausea and sensitivity to light at a crippling level. It feels like I need to find the deepest, darkest cave to crawl into, and the horrendous, mind-crushing pain endures for multiple hours and ends with me vomiting.

"It feels like a mix of your brain expanding from the inside while being put in a vise grip. It’s multi-directional pain and I get an aura at the onset and near blindness when the aura completes itself. The vomiting also burns my throat. I would prefer many things before a migraine.”

"It makes me nauseous to the point of needing to vomit."—Jamie, 31

“My migraines often come on slowly and then turn into an uncontrollable pain. It’s a throbbing sensation that feels like it’s never going to go away, and it’s the only thing I can think about. Oftentimes it also makes me nauseous to the point of needing to vomit. They honestly all blur together, but migraines feel like they're never going to end.”

"The aura inhibits my ability to see well or focus." —Lily, 23

“I get ocular migraines so first I see an aura, which looks like a little spot similar to when you look at a light for too long and have a spot in your vision. Except the auras start really small, and then usually grow to blur most of my vision. I try to take Aleve or Excedrin as soon as I see the aura, which can sometimes stop the rest of the migraine from coming on, but if I don’t have any on me or it’s a particularly strong one, the aura will last around thirty minutes to an hour. The migraine then kicks in when the aura goes away.

"The aura is probably the most frustrating part of the migraine because they really inhibit my ability to see well or focus. The migraine itself feels like really intense pressure around either my temples or eyebrows and sometimes all around my head if it’s particularly bad.

"I definitely notice that I get more migraines during times of high stress—usually emotionally related. But I also get migraines randomly, so I haven’t really found a pattern. I’ve also tried tracking my diet around my migraines to see if that plays a role, but I haven’t found much either.”

"It feels like my head will come off my shoulders." —Connie, 32

“My first full-blown migraine was at 13 years old. My vision was compromised, I had pounding pain in my head, and I could not lay down to rest due to the pressure. It feels like my head will come off my shoulders from the severe pain. As I have gotten older, symptoms worsen.”

"Sometimes it throbs." —Gabriela, 24

“To me, migraines feel like stabbing headache pain, usually on the right side of my head, starting with my temple and working its way across the right entire side. Sometimes it throbs, and sometimes the pain comes and goes. I try to massage it or take medication, but the only way to get rid of it is to wait it out, usually with the lights off and trying not to look at anything.”

"It feels like an ice pick is stabbing my brain." —Emily, 26

“My migraines start as a dull, persistent pain in the back of my neck that slowly makes its way to my left temple, where it feels like an ice pick is stabbing my brain at the cross-section of my temple and eyeball. At the same time, my sinus pressure begins to increase making everything more painful. Occasionally, my migraines are accompanied by nausea and vomiting which tends to continually exacerbate my symptoms.

"I wish more people understood that migraines are so much more than just a bad headache. I am always very grateful when my friends and employers are understanding and give me time to recover.”

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