What I Mean When I Say I Have A Migraine.

I had to take a day off work recently because I had a migraine. I got a bit of flack for it, many people thinking I was skiving off for what they perceive to be little more than a headache. More criticism was flung my way when I revealed that I had also had a hair cut on the same day I was so ill I couldn’t do the job I’m paid for.


One thing I need to make clear. A migraine is not a headache. It’s nothing like a headache. It would be like me saying to someone having a heart attack ‘oh come on, it’s just indigestion. Take a couple of Zantac and deal with it.’ For me, the migraine quite often starts with a headache and the pain seems to centre in the head, but the two are incomparable. A headache is an inconvenience, a discomfort that is thoroughly unpleasant but I have never had a headache and wished I was dead because the agony was just too much. I’ve never gone blind during a headache. I’ve never had a headache and found myself conversing with my dead dad and a school teacher and a fictional character from a TV show. I’ve had all of that with migraines.


As I’ve said, they often start, for me at least, with a headache. I have to stress, everyone’s migraines are different. There is no set pattern for every sufferer. What I describe may seem minor to some victims, and extreme to others. Sometimes, before the headache I get…a feeling. I can’t describe it any better than that. Just a sense that something isn’t right with my body and that it’s about to spring a nasty attack and betray me in a terrible way.


The real giveaway that what’s happening is going to be pretty shit, is the yawning. I never noticed it before, but my wife spotted it several years ago and now I use it as an indicator that I’m in trouble. I will not be able to stop yawning. Not just one or two of them, but dozens of them and they are never satisfying. I always need one more, and one more and one more. And I don’t necessarily feel tired. Normal headache + yawning = take emergency measures immediately.


When I get these symptoms, I’ve learnt to hit the nuclear button pretty sharpish. Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes I manage to nip it in the bud. The imminent danger passes and I’m left with ‘just’ a headache and a slightly spacey feeling. But I can function. What I do is pretty drastic and I’m not in anyway endorsing this. I wouldn’t for one second suggest you do what I do, but it works for me. I have 6 or sometimes 8 migraine Nurofen, I eat (chocolate is the best) and sometimes have a strong coffee. The last one I play by ear. I’ve learnt to read my body to know if caffeine will help ease the journey or make it worse. Misjudge that and I’m going to puke (vomiting is not a normal part of migraine ritual)


If I don’t manage to stop it early I am screwed. The incident that kept me off work recently is a great example of that. Woke up in the middle of the night with a headache. Managed to doze again. Woke up at 4am (my usual getting up time these days) still with the headache. Hmm. Had some coffee and toast (this was one of those times where I should have avoided them). Got in the car, noticed the yawning. Oh dear. Got to a garage, where they only had normal Nurofen. While I was waiting for the chap to get them, I noticed the shaking hand. This was starting to look bad.


Pretty much as soon as I pulled away from the garage, I could tell there was no way I was going to make it to work. I was hoping the normal Nurofen would tone it down to just a bad head, but it was way too little too late. I got to the motorway before the yawning started going mental and the sweats started. Game over. I thought though I’d be able to get to the next junction and turn around and make the 8 minute journey back home. No such luck. Approaching the next junction, I knew that I was in very serious trouble. I started getting the blindness and could tell I had about 2 minutes before I was completely fucked. Off onto an A road. Where can I park? Round that corner. Lights need to change. Come on. COME ON. Nope, gonna have to jump them. Window open, threw up, then managed to pull over into a layby.

I have never pulled this face whilst having a migraine.


Interesting (to me at least) side note about the blindness. I’d call it blindness, although I can sort of see. Or rather, I know things are there and I could navigate them if I had to, but I can’t actually visualize them. Now, that makes no sense at all, but migraines don’t. It is a breakdown of some of the basic functions of the brain which engenders an almost state of temporary insanity.


I also can’t speak very well. Some of you may celebrating at the thought of that! The words come out slurred and slow, and I struggle to put my thoughts into words.


Oh, and did I mention the pain? Jesus Christ, shoot me. It is unbearable. Ripping my head off would be a more pleasant option than enduring that excruciating pain. I have never experienced anything like it apart from during an attack.


When I am in the middle of an attack, I need to get cold. Really cold. So in many ways, a parked car is one of the best places I could have one. I set the AC to FREEZING and sat there, riding it out, promising to God that if he could just get me through this I would NEVER do anything bad ever again. I have to contort my body into all kinds of bizarre and painful shapes, the more painful the better , as I need to stretch every muscle, joint and sinew to stretching point. Fingers, neck, back, toes are all clicked to bring some relief.


After 2 hours, I was well enough to drive home. A short one in terms of the intense pain. That has been known to go on for 2 days. I got home, with a very fuggy mind, a shitty headache, wonky vision and a feeling of relief that the worst was over. I did go into London that afternoon to honour some appointments but I should have cancelled. I nearly fainted on the tube, couldn’t shake that headache and was unable to follow a train of thought for more than 30 seconds.


What can I do about them? They are debilitating and I have turned down jobs in the past because I was scared I would get one mid run. One blessing is they seem to be visiting me less than they used to. In the past I could get one or two a week. I think I’ve had 3 this year. I tried various drugs – Zomig seemed to be the best until I built an intolerance to it. My neurologist put me on a trial of a machine that fires electro magnetic pulses into the skull. They have reported great success with it, sadly, I didn’t experience that and sent the machine back to a confused nurse who couldn’t quite understand why I was still suffering with them.


Hey, in the great scheme of things, if this is all I have in my life, then I’m blessed. I’m not writing this for sympathy or an award, it’s just to let you know that migraines are pretty serious and if someone has them, please don’t think they’ve just got a bad head!


UPDATED 12/01/14


Well, I had a first yesterday. On Saturday mornings I present a show between 9 and 12 in the morning on BBC WM. This Saturday started off fine. I got to the studio, set up, had some tea and was all ready to go. I started to get a bit of a headache around 8.30 but thought nothing of it. By 9.05 I knew I was in trouble. This was no ordinary headache. Unfortunately, I had neglected to bring any pain relief with me. Never mind. I could do this. I just had to get to midday and then I could pop into town. 3 hours. Easy.

Not easy.

By 9.15 I was sweating. And this was a mad sweat. i was in what turned out to be a very cool room, I was sat under the air con. But I was literally (and I mean literally) soaked. My shirt was wringing wet. Unusual for one of my migraines. I was jabbing my thumb into my eyeballs and just above the eye. This is a real emergency measure that means I am in big trouble. It was having no effect. Midday was looking more and more difficult to reach BUT I still thought I could make it.

When 9.40 slowly rolled around I knew it was game over. I managed to tell my producer I was going to throw up. She thought I was joking and then realised I was deadly serious. I took a call. I have no idea what the chap was talking about as by now I was in agony. A terrible pain. While he was talking (and here comes the gross bit) I turned my microphone off and threw up in the bin, stopping just enough to turn my mic back on and ask ‘And do you think Benefit Street makes things worse?’ Boom. Chucking up time again.

Jo, my excellent producer on WM, knew I was out. We agreed I would intro a pre-recorded interview after the travel while she decided what to do. I THINK I managed to introduce it. I know I cut the amount I had to say to a few sentences as BOOM there I go again. Thank God there was a bin the studio!

Luckily for me and the people of Birmingham and The Black Country, the excellent Adrian Goldberg was in the building. He stepped into the breach and picked up smoothly after my pre record. I think Birmingham may actually have raised a cheer I would have, but by then I had collapsed on the floor wishing I was dead. I was in such bad pain, I was praying to die. Sounds dramatic but this was a bad one.

I panicked my wife and my agent by sending them badly spelt one word emails trying to detail my situation. Fortunately they got the message.

By 1.15 the pain had subsided enough for me to start clearing up the sick (sorry, last time I will mention it) and decide what I was going to do. I had Big Brother’s Bit On The Psych in the evening By this point I’d cancelled it but decided to try and make it. I did the show, but I was totally out of it. I managed to pull it together when the camera was on me, but every time I saw it was off, I slumped into a heap. Still, I managed to annoy enough people as Twitter this morning shows. And just for the record, of COURSE I don’t think it’s acceptable to punch a horse. Man, some people are so thick!

Today I feel better. A bit. I had a headache this morning and I am irritable and tired this afternoon. I have to thank Jo and Andy and Adrian Goldberg from BBC WM for working round me. They did a great job.



27 thoughts on “What I Mean When I Say I Have A Migraine.

  1. Dean Brown says:

    I am so glad you chose to write this… This blog is getting sent to EVERY person that has ever responded to me sarcastically with “Awwwww, you’ve got a headache?”!!

    I seem to suffer from similar migraines to you, I also get the yawning, and that strange ‘feeling’ that you can never really describe.

    But unfortunately for me there’s no way to calm them down. The first symptom I get is the ‘light vision’, which basically makes me feel like 1000 people are shining torches straight into my eyes and I can hardly see a thing!!

    And strangely, though chocolate seems to help control your migraines, that’s actually one of my triggers!! Coco Pops are one of the worst things for me we’ve figured out over the years!!

  2. Hilary says:


    Thank you so much for your very insightful article. I only hope it is read by muppets who have never experienced a true migraine in the vain hope that they might actually begin to understand the sheer horror of it. By the way, I’m an ex-migraine sufferer, who went through almost weekly, sometimes daily episodes through most of my early adult years, only for them to disappear without trace about 20 years ago…you see, there is hope for you too!

  3. Lorraine says:

    OMG you have explained it so well….I reach for the chocolate too.
    I’ve gone blind & convinced myself I’m about to die…gone to bed, quite sure I’ll never wake up again.
    Air con can set me off & if I skip a meal I’m asking for trouble.
    Last year I only had one, this year I’ve had several, no pattern to them I just pray each one is the last.
    I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy.
    Thanks for explaining it so well, going to share & hope others understand.
    Hope one day somebody finds a cure for everyone that’s suffering .

  4. Kristel says:

    As someone who has had 30yrs of weird head stuff – tho thankfully migraines not being one of them – I totally empathize.

    I have a particular type of epilepsy which means that I am having seizures pretty much ALL the time, you’d never know from looking that it’s going on.
    Recently the fits increased and I went through a really rough couple of months, and people at work tried their best to get me in trouble by suggesting that I was faking the associated problems (lack of sleep, depression etc..).

    Happily things are now back to a ‘normal’ level now, but I totally understand where you are coming from – some people just think you are taking the piss – funny how they are usually ones that really do have something to hide!!

  5. Anne davies says:

    Dear iain and fellow sufferers, I beg you to ask your doctor to prescribe sumatriptan. I have had two migraines per month for about twenty years (menstrual migraine) and was prescribed this three years ago – it has changed my life. Often my migraine will have completely disappeared within an hour of taking it. Please try it, we don’t have to suffer in this way. X x

  6. Lesley-Anne says:

    I think everyone who suffers from migraines has at some stage in their life heard the “you’ve got a headache!” taunt. As you say, Iain, everyone’s migraines are different; mine are hormonal, I can get one every 2 weeks but definitely every 4 weeks, sometimes 2 in a week at that time of the month! I’ve been using a drug called pizotifen for many years, that you take every day and it is supposed to help. I don’t find it stops the migraines but it definitely reduces the severity of them so that I can mostly function when I have an attack. As you said, sometimes, if you get the medication early enough (I usually take Nurofen migraine pain and paracetamol) it can stop the migraine from developing but if I can’t stop it I know that I will have it for 48 hours, and can pinpoint within a couple of hours when it will be gone. I like the post above from an ex-migraine sufferer and hope I will be in that category one day!!!!

  7. Phil says:

    Thanks Iain, my wife’s just read this to me as I had migraine on Friday and still struggling to concentrate enough to read more than a few sentences. I can relate to pretty much every aspect you describe, although probably not as severe.
    Mine started when I was eleven, at which point the school sent me to hospital where I had a five hour stint in A&E, a CAT scan and an eye test – inconclusive was their diagnosis. Im now 46 and I manage to just about about work through the whole process, interrupted by 45 mins in a dark room (usually the toilet), whilst my vision sorts itself out, followed by 4 Anadin Extra (it just works for me). The biggest debilitator for me is the few days after, when i can only explain it as like a bad hangover.
    Anyway, well done for the blog – the more people understand, the easier it will be to explain leaving a meeting or disappearing upstairs at a moments notice. Cheers Phil

  8. Lisa says:

    Completely understand the pains of a migraine.
    I used to suffer too when I was in my early adulthood.
    Nausea was awful and I used to have to get cold too and sleep until it was gone.
    You have my sympathy Iain x

  9. Luke says:

    Really interesting to read this as it sounds like you suffer from the same thing I’ve been having for the past 6/7 years now – a severe form of migraines known as cluster headaches (otherwise known as “suicide heaches” for obvious reasons). Although you don’t mention them by that term, I would imagine that these types of headaches do fall into that category and have probably been diagnosed for them.

    One of the main differences between the types of migraines you seem to be experiencing and the ones I tend to get are that I can go for a whole year not getting any until around Christmas/New Year time.

    Luckily, I barely had even a twinge Christmas/NY just gone so hopefully that’s finally the last of them as the pain is absolutely unbearable as you describe.

    Another difference is that I don’t get those bouts of nausea and vomiting that you talk about but that does sound awful if coupled with the terrible migraine at the same time.

    Regarding medication, I’m on Solpadol at the moment and find that they are often really effective and take effect within 5-10mins of taking them.

    Just wanted to let you know that I know what you’re going through and hope that they come to an end sooner rather than later.

    • Iain says:

      The nausea isn’t always there. In fact, normally the migraines I get doesn’t involve throwing up. It’s just the last few have. Hope it’s not a sign of how they will be from now on! Luckily they are becoming less and less frequent.

  10. Brigsy says:

    I am just chiming in to empathise really. I also get the yawning and know that’s when I am in trouble. I also can’t get my eyes to stay still and can’t concentrate on anything. Mine are mainly induced by exercise, which perversely is one of my joys in life.

    Mine don’t become as debilitating as yours and can nip them in the bud before things become too bad. But if I don’t……dustbins ahoy etc

    Hope you find some relief somehow.

    • Iain says:

      I didn’t get the yawns yesterday. The soaking wet sweat is also a rare phenomenon. Looks like the migraines may be evolving! Luckily it didn’t drag on. The pain was intense but the main bulk of it was confined to just under 4 hours. I consider that a result.

  11. Darren says:

    Fortunately I don’t suffer now but when I was a kid I used to. If I recall the remedy was (bit flaky now as I’m 42!) to wear hideous NHS spectacles that resembled something Ronnie Barker used to wear. It did work though. The pain, however, is something I can remember well. Oh and the piss take over the specs…

  12. jane says:

    Hi iain

    My migraine came on so violently that I was sick all over myself (several times) driving in the middle lane of A1 in the Hatfield tunnel. Not pretty since I had eaten some almonds and drank water to take with my headache tablets after getting the feeling of a migraine creeping in earlier. Luckily I was on my own so no one witnessed the scene and managed to get through the tunnel and pull over (to cry).

  13. Sarah says:

    What happened yesterday sounds terrible, Iain. I’m at uni at the moment but do worry that I’ll struggle when I’m doing a full-time job again.

    I just wanted to empathise with the sense that your migraines are ‘evolving’. I never had one until I was 21, and I mistook the first couple for heatstroke as they both happened while I was at festivals, having been drinking (though not heavily) and sitting in the sun all day. I was frequently sick and had to spend the best part of a day in a tent while periodically being visited by some concerned volunteer first aiders that my boyfriend had summoned. I carried on experiencing extreme nausea and sickness with each migraine after the first two, but I welcomed it as, to start with, being sick would make the pain go away. Now, I’m rarely sick, but when I am, it relieves some of the pressure I feel behind my left eye, but doesn’t dull the pain.

    Probably the only common feature of my migraines is that they always seem to occur behind my eye (sometimes putting pressure on my eyeball helps a bit), I sometimes get an effect like I’m looking through the end of a milk bottle and they nearly always disappear after I’ve slept for a few hours in a cool, dark room. I’ve no idea what triggers them – do you have a trigger?

    Finally, if you haven’t already, I can definitely advocate a preventative prescription. Mercifully the migraines I have have abated quite a bit since I started taking a slow-release version of the beta blocker Propranolol. It’s a pain having to take something every day but 2-3 migraines a week has reduced to a couple a month. I also find 4head (the menthol stick you rub on your head) useful if I’ve just taken meds and want something to distract me a little while I try and fall asleep/get home.

  14. Ben says:

    Would never have guessed – you seemed on great form on Bit on the Psyche

    Have you been investigated for a Patent Foramen Ovale?

    The aura symptoms can be quite predictive of it – then PFO closure seems to resolve it in some people

  15. Lisa Strudwick says:

    Hi Iain
    Thank you for writing this blog, I too have suffered with similar migraines since I was about 8. Have you ever tried preventatives? I have tried several different types but think I now have them under control with a small dose of a preventative and 75 mg per day of Asprin.

      • Lisa Strudwick says:

        Yes I tried beta blockers but they had side effects. I’ve only started these new ones in the last couple of years and they’ve worked wonders plus I only seem to need a small dose so no side effects. Hope your migraines improve they are so debilitating best wishes

  16. Elaine says:

    Read that with interest as I had years of this and much scoffing about ‘she’s gone home with a headache’ – and believe me being a teacher with migraine was no joke.

    I’ve always used Solpadeine max soluble and they usually work if taken with a lie down, head slightly elevated in a cool dark room (window open even in winter)

    This went on for YEARS, I started with these headaches aged about 18 until I actually finished teaching aged 50 and then they more or less stopped.

    However, one morning 5 years ago I woke up with the worst headache of all time. It was indescribable. I took Solpadeine every 4 hours for the next 24 hours and nothing worked. If anything it got worse.
    Suddenly I had a blinding pain like someone had hit my head open with an axe. I screamed for my husband to call and ambulance and he was astounded. I will never forget, he said ‘what, for a migraine?’

    Anyway he did call the ambulance and I know now the crew knew what it was and lay me down carefully keeping me flat and giving me a mask to wear.
    To cut a long story short it was a brain haemorrhage. Actually 33% of people die during the occurrence. I was taken to the next city to a specialist neurological unit who saved my life. I was also not one of the 33% who end up blind or paralysed – I was one of the 33% who survive.

    However headaches are a regular occurrence now, not migraine. Headaches caused by low atmospheric pressure, tube travel (I’ve passed out twice on the tube) and high buildings (I’ve passed out in the Toronto CN Tower and the John Hancock Tower in Boston before discovering that too high or too low sparks a headache) The 24th floor of Manchester’s CIS building is my maximum and even then my ears ring and I’m dizzy.

    So if you get regular violent headaches you need to push for a CT scan at the least because a REALLY violent headache that just goes on and on can be a bleed on the brain. There is no specific cause, it is ‘just one of those things’

    I now wonder whether people prone to migraine are more prone to brain haemorrhages and if thunder, going below ground and being too high up could be normal migraine triggers. Oh and I can also hear those wretched mosquito devices used to disperse youths – they should be banned.

    Message to all – don’t ignore violent headaches, seek help.

    • Iain says:

      Thanks for this. I had a CT scan and a variety of neurological tests last year…they showed nothing. Well, not quite nothing, a few more lesions on the brain than normal but nothing to be worried about. Just to be aware of. They could be contributing to the migraines.

  17. Kate says:

    Thanks for this. I’m going to insist my husband reads it. I hadn’t had a migraine for years until last night. In addition it would seem that the migraines I have had so far were playing with me. Last night I was pretty convinced that I was having a stroke. My hands, arm and face were numb, I couldn’t see, my head was exploding, I lost the power of speech and also couldn’t remember my childrens names.
    My husband made feeble “there there” noises, clearly under the impression that I had a slightly sore head, while I prayed silently (and somewhat gibberishly) for death.
    Not nice.

  18. John Martin says:

    Really sorry for all of you who suffer with this debilitating disease. I have chronic migraine and have just about had enough. However reading this blog and comments has really helped me today.

    Good luck to you all.

  19. Just_Lou says:

    Thankyou for writing this. What you describe before the actual migraine is known as the aura and while our actual migraines sound quite similar, my aura is different. Thinking about it, I do yawn a lot, but I have no idea that a migraine is about to hit until my vision goes. For me, it’s like I’m looking through an oil slick. I have those wide range of colours in my vision. This is my 20min warning that my head will soon explode. Shortly after that I get a dry mouth and I know I need to get horizontal ASAP with my fan on for white noise. It also blocks out other noises that I can actually see while I’ve got a migraine. Light feels like it’s killing me. I used to get them 3 days a week, followed by a day long hangover where all I could do was sleep. Between my GP and Neuro, I had tried all the preventative meds and abortive meds. Both on and off licence. Topiramate worked as a preventative for a while and the sumatriptan injection worked quite a lot as an abortive. I get one every 10-14 days now which I can live with compared to 3 a week. But I have tried your advice of the car with aircon. It actually works, but it’s just not practical for any length of time. As soon as you get out of the cold, that gun fires right at your head again. If your sickness is severe with them, consider asking your GP for metoclopromide. It’s an anti sickness. Keep some in the car and in your wallet and at the first sign of one, neck it. With my morphine reductions, I would be lost without it and go into withdrawl very quickly if nothing was staying down. Apparently the only thing worse than a migraine are cluster headaches. If there is a silver lining for migraine sufferers, then I guess that is it.

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