By Jorie –
Migraine, at least as most of society knows it, simply consists of bad head pain, a little nausea, and that’s probably about it. But it’s so much more than that.
If you don’t personally experience migraine, you probably aren’t aware of the continuing, crazy medley of intriguing, confusing, and rather unpleasant symptoms accompanying this monster. Even doctors often don’t realize these symptoms are directly related to migraine.
Yes, the head pain is agonizing, and the nausea often unbearable, but what about feeling like you’re in some psychedelic dream? Smelling strange odors that aren’t there? Or maybe forgetting how to speak coherent words? Unable to distinguish sizes. What about touching your head and finding that your hair feels like it’s on fire?
These are just a few of the extra strange neurological sensations many of us migraineurs deal with on a regular basis with our attacks. So here are my top 5…
1. Olfactory Aura.
I perk my head up from the laptop where I’m working diligently; a burning smell has consumed my nostrils, so real that I would think there were a fire blazing over in the kitchen. But, it’s nothing. This is often my tell-tale sign of an oncoming migraine, though: the distinct odor of burning matchsticks or a campfire just stomped out and still smoking into the air.
An olfactory aura, also known as phantosmia, is an aura that happens via smell instead of the more popular way of vision. Auras in general happen for 20-25% of people diagnosed with migraine. One study reports only 0.7% of auras were olfactory, making them extremely rare. There are many types of reported olfactory auras; burning is one of the most common, but they also range from the smell of gasoline to the smell of sewage and more rarely, pleasant, flowery smells.
2. Aphasia and Dysarthria.
My tongue is heavy and hangs like a wet, overripe fruit in my mouth. Big and soft and limp. I can hear myself speaking in the distance, through mud and muck. My words drag along as my mouth makes motions that don’t match up. None of the sounds come out properly. They roll around, while in my mind I’m perfectly understandable. Everyone stares at me, I’m sure, thinking, “is she drunk?” I accept their reactions and laugh it off. I’m far from drunk.
A somewhat common, but less reported symptom of migraine, aphasia and dysarthria can range from mild to severe and generally happens with patients who have a complex type migraine such as hemiplegic migraine or migraine with brainstem aura. Statistics aren’t widely reported for either of these symptoms, but one study found that only 1-4% of migraine patients experience aphasia at any time during their migraine phases.
3. Allodynia and Paresthesia.
As the migraine settles in, the sensation in my hands becomes like static—a tingly, half-numb feeling. Grazing my head or face results in a fiery sensation, a sunburn on steroids. My skin burns to the touch. I squeeze my hands into hard fists trying to shove the static sensation away, relaxing my hand and tightly balling it up again repeatedly. Nothing ever seems to help.
Paresthesia itself is not rare at all, but when accompanied by migraine it is not as widely reported, making it a somewhat rare symptom. It is often considered a sensory aura, which means an aura involving touch instead of a visual aura. However, paresthesia can often set in for the whole migraine ride, causing numbness or tingling sensations in many parts of the body. Allodynia is similar, but is caused by overactive nerves near the surface of the skin. It often results in a burning or electrical pain. In one study, about 15% of migraine sufferers experienced numbness in the face and 13% felt their leg or arm went numb, in a study of 740 migraine sufferers.
4. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.
As I lie in bed mid-migraine, the room spins and suddenly shrinks. I’m engulfed. The walls are squeezing me, I’m hunched over because I suddenly can’t fit inside my bedroom. My arms and legs grow a mile long. My breathing becomes labored. I hyperventilate, anxious I’m going to be crushed. I’m dying! I’m gargantuan—have I grown too big, or has the room become too small? Before I can decide, I’m suddenly as tiny as a field mouse, scurrying around in the sheets, trying to make sense of my new surroundings. My shoe looks is as big as a house. My bed and pillows, a mountain range. My desk, a giant cliff. I continue to have tunnel vision, growing huge, and then shrinking down again. I close my eyes, willing this nauseating feeling to go away… and then, I peek open an eyelid: all is back to normal.
One of the rarest and most interesting symptoms of all, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like. Remember the scene in Alice in Wonderland where she becomes as large as the house, and then tiny again? The “eat me” cookies caused her to dramatically change size. The condition is a play on a patient’s visual and tactile perception, causing a misrepresentation of body image. It is considered a type of hallucination and occurs in about 10-20% of the world’s population.
5. Memory Loss.
I wake up in a bed. Whose bed am I in? I look at the clock. How is it 9pm? I could have sworn it was just 3 in the afternoon. I gaze around the room. Where am I? I sit up. I get out of bed, shakily, dizzily. I look at my hands, my feet, the floor, the walls. Nothing is familiar. Nothing I can claim as mine. Nothing I can recall as anywhere I’ve ever been before. I poke my head around the door of my bedroom: a long hallway. I walk carefully, stepping one foot in front of the other slowly, so as not to lose balance. A bathroom to the left. Ahhhh. I have to pee so bad! Time feels like sludge. I try to think about the last day. I try to remember where I am. This place is starting to feel familiar. And then—a lightbulb. It’s my house. It was my bed. My floor and walls. My bathroom. My body. Another chunk of time lost to migraine.
Memory loss occurs most often in the postdrome phase of the migraine attack, as it is ending, also known as the “migraine hangover.” According to the Migraine Relief Center, sufferers in a study did worse on neurological memory tests during an attack than they did when they were between episodes. Memory loss also happens most frequently in those with complex type migraine than any other. A universal patient-coined term for this type of short term memory loss is “brain fog.” However, the term brain fog is broad and covers more than just memory loss.