How could you possibly explain the torture of a migraine to someone who's never had one? The uninitiated know there's a headache involved — and, hoo boy, there definitely is — but there's also a lot more. And what the migraine-free population may be most shocked to learn is that, in all, a single migraine could last for days.
That's because there can actually be four stages to a migraine. Not every migraine sufferer experiences all four stages every time, and everyone's cocktail of specific symptoms tends to be different. That's why keeping track of your unique symptoms and triggers can help you be prepared for an incoming migraine and, in some cases, stop it before the worst arrives. Here are the phases of a migraine and what fun you might experience with each:
A few days before (prodrome phase): During this phase, the Mayo Clinic explains, you might start to feel subtle signs that things aren't quite right. That could include changes in your digestion (e.g. constipation or diarrhea), changes in your mood (e.g. depression), and weird food cravings. Some people also notice that they're thirstier than usual (and, therefore, peeing more often). At this point, neck and shoulder stiffness or aching may set in as well.
The day of (aura phase): An hour before or during the headache phase, you might start to notice some weird things happening with your vision. The classic example is zig-zagging lights off to one side of your visual field that gradually become larger and more intense (also known as a visual aura). Others have trouble focusing their eyes or a part of their visual field goes blurry. For some people, the visual symptoms of an aura are accompanied by a feeling of numbness or pins-and-needles sensations in their limbs or face.
Attack phase: Oh here we go, y'all! This is it: the intense pounding pressure of a migraine headache. Along with that pain, you'll probably experience a sensitivity to light and sounds (and maybe smells) that makes the pain worse, says the Migraine Trust. Sometimes, this comes with nausea and lightheadedness. This phase usually lasts at least four hours and can go for a full 72 hours if it's not properly treated.
A few days after (postdrome phase): Once the headache passes, you'll feel like you need a big ol' nap: This "mental hangover" phase, as science blogger Scicurious calls it, comes with fatigue and weakness as well as a continued sensitivity to light and sounds for the next 24 hours or so.
After a migraine, it's especially crucial to take some time to be nice to yourself. That means making your sleep and nutrition top priorities. Of course, if this is your first time getting a migraine or you're concerned about any aspect of your migraines, definitely check in with your doctor. She can walk you through the potential treatment options (including medication) that can help shorten and even prevent your migraines.