“It’s JUST a headache”

Jennifer MitchellChronic Pain

No!!  In reference to a migraine, I and anyone who experiences migraines will attest that it’s not just a headache.

Yet the messages — that we should just take an Advil, just get some sleep, just think positive or exercise more – undermine the impact migraines can have on your life.  I try never to speak for another’s experience, but I can speak to mine and draw on the stories I have heard from people who suffer from chronic daily migraine.

It took me years to seek help. Like many of you, I thought I should just push through, and slowly it became my ‘normal.’ My normal was up to 20-25 migraines a month, although I was classifying them as headaches at the time.

The real kick-in-the-pants came in July 2014 when my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a nasty, terminal brain cancer. At this point, I had been experiencing severe word retrieval problems, visual-motor issues and memory issues. I had started my PhD in 2012 and had been spending increased time writing. I noticed that when I wrote, it was often word salad on the screen.  It was incredibly scary to feel a lack of control over my own body! With my dad experiencing brain cancer, I felt really concerned and feared that my brain was also really sick. I was lucky to be referred to a GREAT neurologist who helped me gain some control over the pain.

She explained that after years of suffering almost daily, I was not only dealing with the pain, but chronic fatigue. She explained that the body gets exhausted fighting the pain and pushing through activities and that day after day of disturbed sleep takes a toll. She helped me realize the seriousness of migraines and the emotional and physical impact on a person.

What was both sad and amazing, is that as I started to feel better, I realized just how much pain and misery I had been living in before.

I can’t speak for everyone, but migraines are more than pain and may involve:

  • Visual motor issues
  • Balance issues
  • Word salad
  • Word retrieval problems
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety about being around potential triggers (crowds, smells etc.)
  • Migraines can last for days
  • Vertigo
  • Irritability

So what can you consider?

    • If you don’t have a good doctor, keep advocating for yourself. If it has become exhausting to advocate, consider reaching out to a friend, a life coach or a therapist to assist you. You are worth fighting for!
    • Consider mindfulness meditation, biofeedback or yoga for pain management. It may seem counter –intuitive to be mindful with your pain! I get it — we often want to escape, ignore or banish pain as quickly as possible. However, pain can be similar to our difficult emotions, the more we struggle and fight against them, the more stress it can create in our body! With practice, and sometimes with the help of a psychologist, or biofeedback practitioner, it is possible to train the body and mind to remain calmer even when in pain.
    • Consider a diary. Although I found keeping a diary to be a bit of a pain in the butt, it did help me identify my migraine triggers and really helped me see the progress! Currently, I use an app called Migraine Buddy – it tracks sleeps, duration of attacks, triggers and relief and the app can create charts and reports.
    • Migraines, and many chronic conditions have been linked with childhood trauma. In fact, as a trauma therapist, I have seen trauma lodged in the body that results in chronic gastrointestinal issues, body numbness and skin conditions, to name of few. I recommend Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress as a great explanation to how adverse experiences impact our health.
    • My last point is to reiterate that I know that you may have heard it all – from helpful to non-helpful suggestions. Do any of these sound familiar? What I want to stress is that you need to find what works for you and that is okay to ask for help.

Pain management is multi-faceted, it can include medications, doctors, specialists, and the help of a therapist. Gaining education about the physiology, anatomy and psychology of pain can be helpful in management. There may be childhood trauma to deal with. There may be trauma and resentment from not being taken seriously in the medical system or constantly feeling that you are fighting an uphill battle to get help. There may be emotional pain from being scoffed at by coworkers, family or friends or even losing your job due to missed days. You are also likely managing more than one pain or chronic condition. These are all compounding factors that surround migraines and chronic pain conditions. Validation can go a long way to stepping towards relief.  You and your health matter!


“Relief is a wonderful emotion, highly underrated. In fact I prefer it to elation and joy.
Relief lets the air out of the Tire of Pain”

~ Adriana Trigiana


References and Additional Resource

Kim, J. (June 2017). The Connection Between Migraines and Psychological Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-shrink/201706/the-connection-between-migraines-and-psychological-trauma

Tietien, G., & Peterlin, B.L. (2011). Childhood abuse and migraine: Epidemiology, sex differences, and potential mechanisms. Headache: The Journal of Face and Body Pain, 5(16), 869-879.

In June 2017, I was happy to see The Current do a segment on migraines. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-june-7-2017-1.4148334/not-just-a-headache-female-migraine-sufferers-cope-with-pain-and-stigma-1.4148367)

Migraine Resources: http://migraineresearchfoundation.org/resources/resources-and-links/