When A Migraine Feels Like A Stroke

By the time you realize it’s happening, it’s too late.

by @viniciusamano on Unsplash

I’ve suffered from migraines for years, and only once or twice has a headache accompanied the alarming list of neurological symptoms that seem to arise out of nowhere.

It always starts with a lightning-fast moment of confusion. That’s it. For a split second, I’m disoriented. And then my vision goes.

Within minutes, I can’t see at all. What starts with a few glittery zig-zags in my peripheral vision quickly turns into flashing lights, somewhat resembling a kaleidoscope, taking over my entire field of vision. The world around me slows down; I can’t produce any words, and I stumble. I open my mouth to ask for help, but nobody can hear me. I reach out for the nearest object to hold onto, but my arms move as if they are deep underwater, unable to reach any nearby anchors with precision. It’s too late.

I don’t know how long it takes to recover from it. All I know is that I can’t call for help even if I try; I can’t speak, I can’t see, and for the most part, I can’t move. After awhile, I slowly regain my senses, but I feel nauseated. I can see, although everything is still glittery. I can utter a few comprehensible words. I can stand up without falling down.

After a few hours, the confusion subsides. The nausea dissipates.

And then it’s over.

For years, I didn’t recognize these as migraine symptoms.

The first time it happened, I thought it was an allergic reaction to something. The second time, I thought it was a stroke, but when I regained use of my limbs a few hours later, I ruled it out. My doctor didn’t know what to say, and asked if I had recently started taking any new medications, thinking that it could have been a side effect. Nonetheless, I went for a full neurological workup and everything appeared normal.

Migraines never crossed my mind — most of the time, I didn’t get a headache alongside these episodes. And when I did get severe headaches, they were usually unaccompanied by other symptoms. I did notice, though, that my regular headaches would last up to 24 hours.

So my doctor brushed off the stroke-like symptoms, but said the headaches were probably migraines, since they were so severe. I was prescribed Maxalt (which didn’t work), and later, Imitrex (which also didn’t work).

But migraines, as I would come to learn, aren’t headaches — headaches can be a symptom of a migraine attack, but migraines themselves aren’t headaches.

It turns out that my headaches weren’t migraines at all; they were just really, really bad headaches. But the neurological symptoms that had been brushed aside?

Those were migraines.

Women suffer from migraines more often than men do, and researchers say that hormones may be the culprit. Estrogen may make women more sensitive to migraine triggers. For this reason, oral contraceptives containing estrogen (i.e. most of them) are contraindicated for women who experience migraine with aura. There is plenty of evidence to back this up.

Migraine symptoms can mimic those of transient ischemic attacks, or “mini strokes”, which some studies suggest could foreshadow a “real” stroke. And alarmingly, women who experience migraine with aura might be at an increased risk as well; blood vessels temporarily narrow during a migraine attack, which can cause blood clots to form, making migraine sufferers more susceptible to full-blown strokes.

Maybe it isn’t “just a headache”.

When CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin recently “disappeared” in the middle of her set, fans on social media began to ask where she had gone.

That’s how quickly it happens; you’re fine, and then you’re not. Thousands of people responded to her post, expressing empathy, and sharing their own stories of being completely debilitated by a sudden migraine attack.

Thankfully, I haven’t had a migraine in a few months after consulting with my doctor and making some lifestyle changes. I still get them a few times a year, but it’s a drastic improvement from having them on a regular basis.

But still, I’m frightened each and every time it happens.

What if it happens when I’m driving? When I’m crossing a busy street? When I’m holding a pot of boiling water?

By the time I say to myself, “I think I’m going to have a mi — ”, it’s too late. I couldn’t even call for help if I tried.

Considering how common migraine attacks are and how dangerous they can be, it’s concerning that there are so few ways to make them stop.

There are abortive medications that take awhile to kick in. There are injectable triptans that work rapidly, similar to an Epipen, but need to be administered at the first sign of trouble. And there are pain medications that help you deal with the after-effects.

The key, perhaps, is in prevention.

Find out what triggers your migraines, and work with a doctor to eliminate as many triggers as possible.

Some of the triggers might be biological; you can address these with your doctor and try to eliminate the underlying causes.

Others might be environmental, such as exposure to bright lights.

While attempting to prevent all migraines can be futile, it’s important to realize that stopping a migraine in its tracks might be altogether impossible. Considering the potential risks of having recurrent migraines, it’s in your best interest to do whatever necessary to prevent as many of them as possible.

And when it comes to environmental triggers, there are usually simple solutions; you can tint the windows of your car darker than the legal limits, for example, with a note and an accurate diagnosis from a doctor.

technical writer • site reliability engineer • engineering leader • all views are my own • kerisavoca.com 👩🏻‍💻

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