It’s Just A Migraine

Real quick, I wanted to talk about something that’s totally off topic, but is important to me.

Recently, this video of a reporter suffering aphasia, or an inability to speak correctly, went viral. CBS reporter Serene Branson was about to give a live report after the Grammy’s when she found that her words just weren’t coming out right. Check it out, begins about 15 seconds in:

Some people found the clip amusing, others unsettling. Me, I was instantly brought back to one of the most disturbing moments of my entire life.

I was in 8th grade, and our Spanish teacher Senora Kelly was about to put on a video for the class (El Norte, if I remember right, the harrowing story of a Mexican couple sneaking across the border that us 14 year old kids found insufferably boring).

Suddenly, I couldn’t see the television screen. I mean, I could see it, but…You know your blind spot? It was like I had blind spots all over my eyes, like my vision had become a cubist painting. Then, what looked like television static began creeping into my field of view. And suddenly my right hand went numb, a feeling that I noticed was creeping up my arm.

I stood up, terrified out of my mind, and the teacher asked what was wrong. I started to answer her, and my response sounded EXACTLY like Serene’s. I couldn’t speak. I knew the words in my head, but they came out as alien gibberish. I think that’s why I find the clip so disturbing – you can see it on her face that she knows what she wants to say, but is terrified by the fact that her voice just won’t obey her.

Thankfully, this weirdness only lasted about a half hour or so. As it faded, I was left with a splitting headache, but was otherwise able to get back to being bored by El Norte. When I later tried to explain what happened to people, I only got funny looks, like I was making it all up (something that still happens to this day).

It was only years later that I learned I had had what is known as a complex migraine, or a migraine with aura symptoms. Most people think of a migraine as a splitting headache. Turns out, migraines can do some pretty amazing neuro tricks JUST before the headache comes on – this includes numbness, aphasia (inability to speak), visual disturbances, and dozens of others – you can read a full list at Wikipedia, but needless to say, it’s some wild stuff.

Artist’s impression of a visual disturbance

Typically, it lasts from 10 minutes to about an hour, then goes away right as the actual migraine comes on. It’s almost like your brain wants to scare the hell out of you right before socking you with the worst headache of all time (my brain is such a jerk). Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fantastic piece for the NY Times about his own bouts with complex migraines, and he actually gets a kick out of experiencing the weirdness.

Shortly after the CBS video went viral, TV stations were flooded with experts diagnosing Serene with the worst. “It was definitely a stroke!” said one VERY confident doctor. “Probably a brain tumor,” said another. “Maybe a ministroke, which can be harmless,” said a third, “but indicates that a MAJOR stroke will be coming soon!” The horror!

When I saw the video, then learned she was not hospitalized and actually went home later that night as if nothing had happened, I was sure it was a complex migraine. And today, the Daily News announced it was indeed just a complex migraine.

I just wanted to thank Serene for going public with her diagnosis. The scariest thing for me for the longest time was thinking that this was uncommon, that no one else understood what this was like, that I was the only one on the planet with the sort of thing, and that despite my doctor’s reassurances that it was “just a migraine,” something much more horrible was definitely going on: that it was a stroke (“more people get them then you think, even young people!” screamed the headlines after Serene’s incident), a brain tumor, or worse.

These days, you can just do a search on Twitter for “visual migraine” to learn that you’re not alone. But in the infancy of the internet, this was much harder, and I would have killed to know that others were going through the same thing I was. Hopefully, Serene’s announcement will help reassure others out there who might feel that same isolation.

I’ve been lucky – since that incident in 8th grade, I’ve only had a handful of other complex migraines in my life, usually separated by several years. Coincidentally, I had one just three weeks ago – the first in six years! – while waiting for a bagel at Williamsburg’s Bagelsmith. Thankfully, I managed to get out my order before the weird speech came on – God knows what I would have wound up with otherwise (“I’ll have an everything bagel with very fire escape computation salsa tarantula niblet”). These days, I know exactly what’s going on, and I just find somewhere quiet to sit it out.

But that little kid in 8th grade had no idea, and I can’t imagine how much worse it must have been to have this happen for the first time on live television in front of millions of viewers…And then having to listen to expert after expert announce that you’re about to die of any number of horrible brain malfunctions. I mean, Christ, and I thought having to sit through the rest of El Norte was bad.

If this sort of thing happens to you, you need to get checked out to be sure – migraine symptoms can often exactly imitate those of a stroke, and better to be safe. But I think it’s just as important to know that this sort of thing is common, and while it’s quite scary, it’s ultimately harmless. I’m definitely NOT looking for sympathy – there are MUCH more worse maladies to have to deal with than a weird headache that comes every six years. But for those of us with this unusual problem, it’s nice to know there are others out there.

-nick

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48 comments

  1. Wow! Nick! That’s got to be scary, but it’s interesting from my POV. Shows how interesting and fascinating our brains are. Just curious, when this happens, have you tried writing instead of speaking. Does it affect your motor capabilities as well? Do your headaches get worse with each incident? Interesting topic.

    • Ha, never tried writing, but those who have say it’s just as impossible as speaking – even though you are COMPLETELY coherent mentally as this is going on. I’ve successfully played a killer guitar solo tho, so it doesn’t affect everything.

      And no, every incident has been the same as that one as in 8th grade, same weird symptoms, same level of headache. They say that even tho there’s a lot of stuff that >can< happen, your brain typically sticks to the same routine each time.

  2. It breaks my heart that people made light of it! God Bless Her! I can’t explain my sadness at those posts! She’s beautiful, and I hope she’s ok!

  3. My Mom had her first experience like this when she was pregnant with my older brother. She could barely call my Dad, let alone put words together. When she got to the hospital, the doctor told her she had a brain tumor. She didn’t. It was her first migraine.

    • I had the exact opposite experience. I kept insisting it MUST be a brain tumor, and my doctor kept telling me I was nuts. I eventually got an MRI and…I should trust doctors more often.

  4. Thanks for that, Scout. I hadn’t heard or read about her diagnosis. My mother has suffered with migraines all my life and I know she’s experienced the visual effects you described. If she’s ever had the vocal effect I haven’t witnessed it and she hasn’t mentioned it. After seeing how they affect her you and everyone else who suffers with migraines have my complete sympathy.

  5. Scout! You take care man! We love ya!

  6. The artists image of the migraine related visual disturbance is right on! I get ocular migraines (the aura without the pain, just some nausea and tiredness), and that is pretty much what they look like. Absolutely terrifying the first time it happened.

    • I think your type is actually called a “silent migraine” – weirdo symptoms without the headache. Occular migraines I’ve been told are when the weird eye stuff comes right before the headache. Either way, terrifying the first time.

  7. I have ocular migraines as well. The first time I thought I was having a stroke. Very scary. The visual disturbance was just as the picture shows.

  8. Interestingly, I had a migraine come on while I was doing some typing, and found myself typing in complete gibberish, despite my brain and fingers thinking I was typing correctly. It was an odd form of aphasia, and I wondered what was going on before it dawned on me it was a migraine. I wrote about it at http://www.ironicsans.com/2009/08/migraine_typing.html

    • Awesome write-up, David. I really, really wish there was a central repository for these stories so people could realize how common this all is. Also that amnesia bit was pretty amazing, just the sort of thing you want to have happen after a weird migraine.

  9. I just heard this on the news this morning. I was glad to hear it wasn’t something more serious. @Gary ^^^-I know what you mean about people taking it lightly. I was sitting at work the day after it happened and someone asked me if I had seen the video. I hadn’t seen it but had heard about it. And they were laughing about it! I didn’t say anything because it was my boss but I was thinking how awful it was that someone could laugh about this. It could have been more serious.

  10. “It’s not a toomah!”

  11. I actually had my first complex headache at work last year … it didn’t affect my speech, but I lost all my peripheral vision for about an hour and a half before the pain actually hit.

    The second time it happened (a couple of weeks ago), I did my best to stave it off – drank two bottles of water, took advil, rested my eyes, etc. It helped a little bit, but still put me out for the rest of the day.

    Thankfully I have enough medical people in my family that I knew that the symptoms of migraines can be extensive. But even so, that first hour without peripheral vision was scary!

    • Definitely scary, and frankly, still scary every time it happens. But I’m definitely going to try the Excedrin+loads of caffeine next time it starts happening, see if I can ward it off.

  12. Thanks for this! I have a similar-but-different case – for years I’ve had weird headaches that presented as a sharp, pulsating pain that *felt* like it was between my scalp and skull. I called them “Harrison Bergeron” headaches because I could go about my normal day-to-day activities, but would get things done in about twice the time they would normally take because the individual pulses of pain would be so bad they would stop me dead no matter what I was doing – speaking, writing, driving (super scary!). For the longest time, people looked at me like I was crazy when I described the symptoms (and would look at me like I was crazier while I was going through them). Even doctors blew me off and told me I must have bumped my head and that I was feeling the bruise. Only in the last 8 years have I known that these are migraines, and that I’m not the only one to suffer from them (but this type is even more rare than the aural ones, apparently).
    I know this is a long comment, but I think it would have done me some good, too, to see that other people were dealing with the same thing, and that I wasn’t crazy or dying of something.

    • I’ve DEFINITELY had a minor version of that, where it’s like, uh, why does the inside of my scalp hurt??? Nothing I’d really complain about, but enough to rub my knuckles hard against to see if I’ve just bruised it or something.

      A neurologist once told me you can get all this sort of stuff on a very minor level, and it’s still classified as a migraine. And I’m glad you wrote a detailed comment, if more people talked about their experiences, it wouldn’t be so scary when it happened.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful post, Scout! And I hope you eventually watched El Norte. Kudos to your teacher for showing it to a class of 14-year-olds.

  14. Wow, this is interesting! I was diagnosed with migraines when I was in my early 20s (in my mid-30s now), but I’ve never had this happen. I do get a weird aura sometimes, like sparkles in my vision, or a weird sensation of dizziness or falling, but thankfully nothing like this. My biggest warning sign is extreme sleepiness 12-24 hours before one hits. I’d never even heard of it until you posted. I’m glad that’s all that was wrong with her (even though I know migraines well and truly SUCK). Thanks for the info!

  15. I’ve been getting migraines for about 10 years now. I tend to get them every few months. I get some ocular effects, but nothing like the aphasic speech thing. My vision turns into a Lens Baby photo and I get nauseous and very scent-sentsitive. If my neighbor burns the toast I clamp a pillow over my face to keep the smell out.

    • So funny how different the symptoms can be – I’ve never had the smell or nausea stuff. I once heard that a migraine can make it feel like your hand is literally dripping with warm water.

  16. I remember being 13 watching an Ace of Base video when slowly my field of view became like television snow, with the exception of two small holes of normal sight in my upper right field of view.

    I didn’t try speaking, just turned my head so I could still the video. I think it happened just one other time and my parents took me to get checked out.

    It was a migraine without the pain, just as you spoke about. Hasn’t happened since. Thanks for posting this!

    • Isn’t it funny how the exact moment gets committed to memory? Like, where were you on September 11. For the first one, it was watching El Norte, another occurred during the credits of Raiders of the Lost Ark (dammit, I can’t see who assistant directed this!!). I used to not get the migraine, now I do, but it’s never ever been the killer headaches some describe. I believe it’s called a silent migraine when you don’t get the headache.

  17. Hey Nick,

    You and I are part of a rare breed of men who suffer from recurring complex migraines. Women are the usual sufferers, for whatever reason.

    I had my first one 10 years ago at age 23. That one was the worst one ever and was scary. They were painting my office (with us inside! Although, it was a NYC loft, so a big space). I think the smell was the trigger. Strong smells like that are always amplified when I have one. Anyway, I saw “light speed” streaks in my vision that made me think of the Millennium Falconn making the jump to hyperspace. That lasted for about an hour and then overlapped with the actual headache once it hit, and it hit hard. Finally, on my way home from work, I realized that I was missing words. For example, I tried to come up with the names of all the NY sports teams, which I KNEW that I know, but I came up with a lot of blanks during that span, with other similar vocabulary problems as well. I don’t think that writing the words on paper would work, because form my experience it’s not the speech center of the brain but the actual vocabulary center. The closest comparison that I can think of is that it’s like I knew that I had a recipe for making meatballs. I could picture the meatballs and taste them in my mind. I could come up with everything ABOUT the meatballs, but someone stole the index card that has the actual recipe. I can think of “what I want to say”, but the specific word just seems temporarily missing, like a 404 error.

    I didn’t suffer many of them for a few years, but as I went through my mid and late twenties I started to get them about twice a year, mostly when the seasons change. In fact, I had one this week with this big weather change here in NYC. I personally think it can be triggered by changes in barometric pressure, since the root cause (they think) is bloodflow in the brain, and blood vessels, especially at the scale of capillaries, are sensitive to air pressure.

    In the past five years my auros have changes. I never see the light streaks anymore. Now I get holes in my vision, although not literally. It’s more about the ability to focus. For instance, if I get a hole in the center of my vision and hold a book in front of my, I can still see that I am holding a book, but I can’t focus on the words on the page. They just won’t come together at that level of detail, and trying to make it happen accelerates the symptoms and the headache. Sometimes it’s in my central vision, at other times my peripheral. It makes me miss the days of light streaks.

    I’ve never had consistent or bad enough symptoms and headaches to medicate (and I have seen a neurologist). My general MO is at the first sign of an aura I take an Excedrin Migraine (aspirin + acetaminophen + caffeine), get away from any computer screens or other screens, close my eyes, and try to get in to a calm state. I stretch, sometimes nap. With luck I nip the aura in the bud after an hour. In the worst case the headache comes anyway but lasts for a shorter period of time, over within 3 or 4 hours of the first aura symptoms.

    Sorry for the oversharing, but I wish that I had this type of information shared with me a few years ago!

    • Isn’t it funny how you remember these experiences so vividly? I’ve counted about 12 instances in all 28 years of my life, and despite being years apart, I can give you a near exact play by play of each.

      I’ve also heard the statistic as something like 3/4 sufferers are women. I’ve gotta get that support group started!!

  18. This is not about migraines. It’s about no one believing you. For years I have been called a baby or a big pussy because of my “over” reaction to pain and there is an old wives tales that says redheads feel more pain than the other shades of hair. About 2 years ago the New York Times ran an article supporting this legend with scientific fact. I showed it to my sister right away to prove to her I’m not a big pussy. I feel sorry for the reporter, but doesn’t it feel great to have something weird verified??

    • YES. 100%.

      But I also forgive non-migraine sufferers for not understanding. I mean, what the heck are you supposed to think when someone tells you how they see television static, and their hand goes numb, and they can’t speak, and maybe they get weird smells, etc., etc. The “it bleeds, it leads” media has shoved the idea of strokes and brain tumors being common occurrences down their throat, whereas migraines are just given the status of “annoying headache” when in fact they can be completely debilitating.

      That said. I do get pissed when I calmly and rationally explain every bit of what this all involves to people, and I get the very strong sense that they think I’m making it all up.

  19. How could anyone could think such a thing is funny or that someone is making it up? What is wrong with people? My heart goes out to you and Serene Branson. Ordinary migraines are bad enough (I get them too), but episodes like these must be very scary.

    Take care.

  20. Thank you for writing about this. I had two complex migraines in my life (and yes, I thought I was having a stroke) and I get a couple of basial ones a month (numbness at first and then terrible pain followed by complete inability to concentrate). After years of suffering, they’re finally under control. But people who don’t get them don’t realize how disabling they are.

  21. Let me get this straight. In 8th Grade, you stand up in class and speak complete gibberish. You were, I’m sure, obviously upset by this. Parts of your body go numb. And you’re still there in the classroom 30 minutes later watching a boring video? Good thing is was “just” a migraine and you didn’t need immediate medical attention.

    P.S. Just wanted to reiterate that not all migraines include visual phenomena or other “common” symptoms. I had untreated migraines almost my entire life because without an aura or nausea, not even my doctors picked up on what was going on. I know one is about to come on when I can smell the Coca-Cola the guy at the other table is drinking at McDonald’s.

  22. I wanted to tell you, you are so not alone. My ex-fiance, a very hypochondriacal man, knew that he had an aneurysm or a stroke. And he had a visual migraine, like you did. Thank you for coming forward with your story. I have a link to send him so he knows how common this situation truly is!

  23. I know the feeling, though not the full on-set of the verbal symptoms. When I get migraines, the first thing that happens is that my peripheral vision starts to break up. It’s very gradual, and sometimes I don’t notice until it is well developed. If I can’t get relaxed in a dark place within an hour or so of the sparkly lights showing up, I know I’m in for a whopper of a migraine headache. If I do get to a quiet, dark place to lie down, I can usually avoid the pain by sleeping or doing relaxation meditations I learned in high school. Never had the speech or physical impairment, for which I’m thankful, but it is good that people can get proper information about this. It can be really scary.

    Thanks for spreading the word, Scout.

  24. Something very similar happened to a friend of mine a few years back except it lasted about 2 days and resulted in her being hospitalized. Turned out it was an allergic reaction to migraine medication she was newly switched to. Terrifying, nonetheless.

  25. This “aura” phenomenon occurred to me once about 7-8 years ago. I was working at my office desk and began experiencing a small blind spot creeping in from the right side of my peripheral vision. Over the course of a half hour it moved from right to left across my field of vision and at its peak morphed into the shimmering geometric crescent shape much like the one shown in the illustration you include above.

    It was the one terrifying medical experience of my life. I felt for sure that I was having a stroke and going blind. I went into the mens room and sat down, wondering whether to call 911 and beginning to panic until it eventually subsided. What it was remained a mystery to me for years until I happened upon Oliver Sacks’ book “Migraine,” which included the same painting you posted above. The only thing I’d add is that my aura was animated, pulsing and turning in on itself like a crazy geometric electrical optical illusion or a deep sea creature.

    That took place during a period in my early 30s where I was having bad headaches on average once every 3-4 days. I later learned through Sacks’ book about the “auras” and other non-headache but related migraine symptoms that can occur including “abdominal migraine” manifesting in intestinal upset.

    I haven’t had the “aura” to that extreme since, nor headaches with such frequency. I think they were stress related, so since then I have ceased being a workaholic and become much more easygoing. But should a migraine aura happen to me again I may actually enjoy it this time because it’s so out of the ordinary and ultimately harmless. As long as it doesn’t come with a painful headache! :)

  26. Wow, thank you for this blog! Seriously useful info. Thanks!!!

  27. I am having one of these right now (the visual disturbances). I have luckily never experienced the speech problem.

  28. I had something similar happen when I was about 9. I was outside reading when black spots started to appear in my vision. I didn’t see static, but I kept trying to read my book and it was like I suddenly didn’t know how to read anymore. It was terrifying! Luckily, I didn’t have the speech problem. I went inside and told my mom that the lights in the house were too bright. She said I probably had a migraine and she told me to turn off the lights, get in bed, and take a nap. I did. I never told her about the not being able to read thing though. It happened again a few years later at school, but it wasn’t quite as bad the second time.

    My last migraine was about a year and a half ago, but I haven’t had the reading problem since I was really young. Or maybe I have and I just subconsciously know to stop reading and nap instead, before I feel the full effect.

    It’s nice to know that it’s not uncommon. I had never seen that clip of the anchor before, but it is definitely not something to laugh about.

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  31. Good to know other people have had a similar experience! I had one of these migraines when I was in 8th grade as well, I’m now a senior in high school and haven’t had one since. The doctors told me it was a migraine after the MRI, except I suffered more from nausea rather than a serious headache, and it was before the incident happened. The speech went first, I was in the car and my mom got freaked so she took me to the hospital. It was like forgetting the English language, I could think it but it just didn’t come out right. When I tried to get out of the car, my legs were paralyzed, and my arms went numb. I don’t remember a thing from the next couple hours, not sure if I fell asleep, but everything went blank after I got out of the car. I think my parents were freaked because they thought I had a stroke.

    According to doctors, its caused from an extreme change in patterns. It happened during winter break, and that day I happened to eat McDonalds, was staying up late during sleep overs, worked out really hard during basketball practice, and was apparently very dehydrated. Good to know others have had a similar experience, hope it doesn’t happen again!

  32. I know exactly what you are talking about, I also get the Ocular Migraines. Luckily I don’t get any other symptoms with them. I still remember my first, I was in like 10th grade and I was trying to read a menu at McDonald’s after a Cross Country race, I could see the menu on the wall behind the counter, but all of a sudden it was like someone was “stealing” the words that I was trying to look at. I could see the background but not the actual words. I it took me years to stumble across what was really going on. I too see the flashing “squiggly” lines and always tried to explain is as trying to look through an old broken pane of glass. They seem to last 30-40 min. I seem to get 2-4 a year. One of my worst came on a Trip to NYC actually and it was late at night, trying to ride the subway and suddenly I couldn’t read the map to try and figure out where I needed to get off. Talk about feeling helpless.

  33. I am SO glad to read all these posts. I have had three such episodes. The first when I was 21. I could see purple flashing lights in my left eye all day and in the evening experienced the numbing of my left arm (which I thought was a heart attack) followed by an inability to speak the words which were in my head. I was SO frightened. My mother took me straight to the doctors and I remember looking at the building and thinking that it was the wrong way around – the door was always on the other side of the building. Altogether very scary for a 21 year old. The doctor gave me an intravenous sedative and I remember going straight to bed and feeling a massive headache coming on. I was trying to tell my mother that I had a headache and can remember very clearly telling her that there was a kitten on the bed in a kettle. How ridiculous. Two years later I had the flashing purple lights again, so stayed off work, but it didn’t develop further. I am now 52 and had a third episode last week, which prompted me to look on line – where I found these reports. This time I could see a very large arc, out of both eyes, it was like a hologram. Very very weird. I have shown my family all of these reports to that they will know how to act if I get the same things again. Thanks to everyone. Best wishes from Crowthorne, England.

  34. My first migraine was also in the 8th grade. I was terrified. I’ve only spoken gibberish once, I was 16, and I was told it was a mini stroke. I usually get tunnel vision, lights (like after looking directly at a light bulb), weird “heat wave” looking visuals, I am unable to read or write without serious effort, and there is always a lot of numbness which is usually in my hands, bits of my tongue, and patches of my scalp. I always have visuals before the migraine and the numbness happens whenever it feels like it. I tend to lose fine motor skills, I have a hard time making sharp or precise movements. The worst one lasted about 4 hours. It was the most intense pain I’ve ever experienced. It took everything in me not to scream and destroy the house. It was like being possessed, almost like the migraine was a separate entity trying to push me out of my own body. Thank goodness it has never been that bad since, it was unnerving to say the least. After 12 years of having migraines, I’ve learned what works for me is BC Powder as soon as I have visuals, and the hottest bath I can stand, then spending the day in a dark quiet room.

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