Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Five Levels of Hell Migraines

If you know anything about me, I are no doubt aware that I suffer from migraines. These brain tempests first hit me when I was in my late teens. The very first time I experienced a migraine, I thought I was having the worst hangover of my life, only I hadn't touched a drop of alcohol in days. The pressure in my head was so severe that I was afraid I was having a stroke.

The frequency of my migraines was so low that I often wouldn't recognize when one was starting, would assume I was experiencing just a simple headache, and so it would be too late to stop them by the time I recognized what was happening to me. In a year, I could count on one hand the number of times that a migraine struck.

In my early to mid twenties, I experienced no migraines. Not one. The closest I got to feeling the effects of a migraine occurred when I was hung over, but believe me: I would gladly take a day of being hung over to an hour with a major migraine.

My migraines returned in the last half of my twenties, and came back with a vengeance. The first time that Lori saw me with a migraine, she was close to dialling 9-1-1. She thought I was dying, and wept as I pounded my head against the wall in a vain attempt to render myself unconscious, so that I wouldn't feel the pain in my exploding head.

I'm not sure what brought about the return of my migraines or what made them so intense. With these migraines, I was out of action for at least three or four hours, but most commonly, a day. And they were more frequent: it was rare for a month to transpire without an attack.

Equally a mystery was how the migraines disappeared for the two years that I lived in South Korea. Once again, the migraines vanished without a word. But Korea was a mysterious place, in that my seasonal allergies also disappeared. No sneezing or runny nose in the spring or fall.

Back in Canada, the migraines returned, as though they had been waiting for me and were anxious to make up for lost time. They were more frequent and varied in intensity. If I could catch the onset of a migraine, when it was in its infancy, I could take a couple of Advil tablets and nip it in the but. If I was late to medicating or if the migraine snuck up on me, especially when I was sleeping, there was no medicine in the world that could stop it.

In the past few years, I've also developed what my doctor has labelled as "optical migraines," where there is no pain but my vision fails me, where I see things as though I was wearing blinders, or had tunnel vision, where light would obscure everything. If an optical migraine strikes when I'm sitting in front of a computer screen, everything washes out. I can't see words on a page.

Technically, I'm blind.

I've begun rating the intensity of my migraines on a scale from 1 to 5, as follows:

  • Level 1: Optical—as I said, painless, but renders me blind.
  • Level 2: Mild—this is a steady throb with slightly blurred vision. I can function with a level-2 migraine, but I am not good company. I'm highly irritable. Advil will keep it at bay, but won't eliminate it unless I catch it before it kicks in.
  • Level 3: Minor—if I don't catch this migraine with meds before it settles in, I am sensitive to light, sound, and touch. I can't stop yawning. All I want to do is lie under my bed sheets and sleep it off. A level-3 migraine will last three or four hours. I experience one of these migraines once a week; luckily, I catch most of them before they become unmanageable.
  • Level 4: Major—this level of migraine often strikes a couple of times a month and often before I wake up. While taking medication during the early onset of a level-4 migraine will subdue the pain, it doesn't always eliminate the migraine. Often, a medicated level-4 attack is beaten down to a level-2 migraine. Symptoms are the same as with a level-3 migraine, but the pain is more intense. Coping with the pain exhausts me, and all I want to do is sleep. This type of migraine puts me out of action for a day, sometimes two.
  • Level 5: Full-blown—these migraines strike like a light switch. They come on rapidly and often take me by surprise if I'm awake. No medication can help. I am swept with nausea and often vomit from the pain. Even the slightest amount of light, sound, and touch is excruciating. It hurts to breathe because the sound of my breath and the movement of my rising and falling chest reverberates across my body. I will hold my breath to stop the pain. The sound of my heart and the blood coursing through me is deafening. After hours in sheer agony, I fall unconscious.
One of the great things about a level-5 migraine is that when I'm out cold, I'm out cold. I don't wake up until the migraine is over. And when I do wake up, I feel like a million bucks. I feel reborn, as light as a feather.

Mercifully, a level-5 migraine doesn't come often, maybe once a year. I can't remember the last time one hit, and that's a good thing. With any luck, I'll never have one again, but I know that's wishful thinking.

A migraine is a terrible thing. I wouldn't wish one on my worst enemy. Not a level-5 migraine, anyway.

How about you? Do you suffer from migraines? Tell me about your worst experience.


  1. I am very sorry for what you are going through. You can try carrot juice, spinach, cucumber to get relief from migraine.

    Also you can try the herbs feverfew and gikgo. Goodluck buddy.

  2. Hey Ross.

    I am not at all surprised that your migraines/and especially allergies would disappear when you were in Korea. Ottawa is the "allergy capital of the world" according to our doctor, conditions perfect for all that ails you. As far as migraines, my own are completely weather related. for me it is changes in the barometric pressure- big weather shifts- that trigger mine. I get an aura (optical episode) which warns me the migraine is coming. I get some ADVIL in me, and I can avoid a migraine.. just get a bad headache. this is why I never leave home w/o a couple of advil in my purse/camera bag/ pocket :)

    thanks for sharing your experience.