Migraine Chronicles: A Pragmatic Approach to Pain

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

A few days ago, I realized it’s been quite a while since I’ve written a migraine post.  If only I could say it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a migraine… Ah, c’est la vie!

But they have been better. And I have medication that works so there is no room for complaint. Even still, I choose not to complain (much) because of one immensely comforting truth: my life is not about me.

Although I do forget this from time to time and need reminders (which is one of the reasons I write these things down!), life isn’t lived for me. I do not exist for my own comfort or convenience. I am a created thing – a literal jar of clay for the sole use and purposes of the One who created me.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
(2 Corinthians 4:7)

So the trick, then, is not to escape pain but to use it for His glory and for encouraging others. That is why today I thought I’d share two of the most useful tips I’ve learned in my 14 or so years of dealing with chronic migraine.

  1. Find a pain scale chart that you can relate to (or make your own), print it out, and refer to it when diagnosing pain levels.
  2. Once you have a chart, stick to it when describing your pain.

That may sound simplistic, but especially considering the cognitive issues associated with migraine, it is a must. This is not just for your benefit but for the benefit of your family, your doctor, and basically anyone who’s afflicted by insane prodromal rages or the memory muddles I call migraine brain… or is that just my poor family?

From what I’ve seen, the two most common pitfalls associated with describing pain levels are a tendency to downplay the pain or a tendency to exaggerate it. It is at precisely this point where honesty and integrity are crucial.

Now my countrymen have a penchant for exaggeration. We don’t want 100% effort, we want 110%. We don’t have pain that’s a 10 on the scale of 1 to 10, we have a an 11. When we need something done, we need it done yesterday.

Or to rephrase: we deal in fictitious scenarios and impossibilities which render all useful terms meaningless. In short, we can be just plain silly.

If I’ve learned nothing else from my life with chronic migraine, I’ve learned to be honest and reasonable about pain.

Admittedly, chronic migraine can make the process dicey because of the cognitive issues involved during the prodromal and attack phases.  Another complication is when there are other types of pain. For me, the pain of arthritis in a joint does not present the same challenges as, say a Level 5 migraine. An additional muddling comes when there are no breaks in the pain and thus an 8 can sneak up on you while you’ve been studiously ignoring a milder level (which I am thankful to say is not currently true for me).

On the flip side, don’t cave into the temptation to exaggerate your pain. If the scale you choose is 1 – 10, stick with those numbers (or a zero for no pain at all). Resist the claim that your pain is a 12 if 10 means pain that renders you unconscious. Even if you could get to a 12, you’d be unconscious and wouldn’t know it!

Here’s where the importance of having a pain scale that helps define each level in a way meaningful to you, even if it means you have to tweak an existing one. With migraine, I’ve had pain which made me lose consciousness and pain which woke me from sleep. And of course, with migraine there are other factors to consider like cognition, nausea and/or vomiting, etc.

In my case, the smiley face pain scale so popular in hospitals does little but make me wonder what on earth that bald little guy is grinning or grimacing at.  Also, I don’t tend to cry because of physical pain; it’s the emotional sort which makes the salt water flow.

There are several others. Some humorous like the one below, others detailed. If you struggle with chronic pain, migraine or otherwise, I encourage you to find one that makes sense to you. Then use it. Your people will be glad.




“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” — Dread Pirate Roberts aka Westly;  The Princess Bride

For some people, this is not just a clever line from a movie; it is quite literally true.

There are many “invisible” illnesses (ie- Lyme disease, MS, lupus, et al), and while I’ve known several people who struggle with them, there is one that I am very – one might say intimately – familiar with: Chronic migraine.

For the last 12 years, I have been dealing with a poorly-understood headache condition that is most commonly diagnosed as chronic migraine, although I have also received diagnoses of cluster headaches and occipital neuralgia (which really just means pain at the base of the skull and is more a description than a diagnosis) and even trigeminal neuralgia (which, again, just means pain in areas supplied by the trigemnial nerve).

But the one diagnosis that has dogged me persistently is chronic migraine, meaning 15 or more headache days per month. I cannot describe it better than the headache specialists at Johns Hopkins already have, so I will quote from their website:

Most migraines typically last a few hours to a couple of days and respond well to specific treatments. However, in some patients, The migraine is particularly severe and long-lasting—and may even become chronic, occurring continuously for weeks, months, or even years on end. If improperly managed or left untreated, intermittent migraines may essentially transform into a chronic daily headache, with continuous and smoldering symptoms that periodically erupt into a “full-blown” migraine.

That’s pretty much my life in a nutshell. And I have learned to cope.

Although I have mentioned migraine in the past (here and here and here for those who are interested), it has been rare for me to dedicate an entire post to nothing more than migraine (except, perhaps, for a serial post about being thankful for the lessons of migraine beginning here although I didn’t re-read the entire thing because, well… I’m currently fighting a migraine).

In the main, I’ve avoided it because I do not want to fall into the habit of complaining. Recently, however, I’ve found that discussion of the problem with others who suffer or who care for a migraine sufferer can be useful, even helpful, so long as I am careful not to merely moan and groan but point to tips and tricks I’ve learned or how God has used an unpleasant circumstance for His good and glory (which He has many times).

So after a couple of suggestions from friends new and old, I think I’m going to try something new on here. On the off chance it gives hope to one person or makes a single soul feel less alone, I am going to dedicate Mondays on this blog to a discussion on migraine. May the Lord set a guard over my… ah, over my fingers, I suppose… and use this space and discussion for His purposes and glory, and may I resist any temptation to whine!

As always, I welcome any comments, feedback, sharing of your own migraine stories, or whatever else you may wish to say so long as foul language, insults or derision aimed at anyone else, and so forth are avoided.

So starting Monday, look for a post about what migraine is… and what it is not. Perhaps, even, we can pray for one another that God may be glorified either because of or despite migraine. Certainly, we can pray that God may bring comfort to those who suffer without His peace.

Blessings to you!

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
(Galatians 6:2)

**Update July 2017: Although I had fully intended to write about my migraine journey and the spiritual lessons therein each Monday, in my real life of teenagers, work, church, and everything else, it is not happening.

It would seem that actually coping with migraines and the associated fatigue, brain fog , etc., etc. does not necessarily lend itself to such ambitious aims. So instead of every single Monday, I will just put every migraine-related post in a category (cleverly called “migraine”) where interested parties can find these posts and read them at their leisure…