‘Please let it be a migraine’ – chronic illness is the age of COVID-19
A dull ache creeps into my neck, working its way down my back, spreading rapidly through my limbs until they’re heavy and useless. Next comes a sharp pain directly between my eyes, burrowing into the depths of my skull as if trying to drill straight through the bone. I yearn for the cool burn of an ice pack pressed against my forehead, but the idea of walking to the kitchen is laughable given the lead weights pinning my body to the couch.
As my symptoms multiply, all I can think is, “Please just let me have a migraine.”
According to the American Migraine Foundation, more than 37 million people across the United States suffer from migraines, a neurological condition commonly characterized by debilitating headaches. But any migraine-sufferer will tell you, these are no ordinary headaches.
Migraines are commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, vertigo, dizziness, and fatigue, among other symptoms. And for millions of people, these all-out attacks on the nervous system are providing a whole host of additional problems during coronavirus.
If the symptoms I just listed sound familiar, it’s because many of them are also symptoms of COVID-19. Headaches, extreme fatigue and body aches have all been recorded among coronavirus patients, as have other commonly recorded migraine symptoms such as hot flashes (easily mistaken as fever), loss of smell, and more.
And because migraines are unique to each individual, the possibilities for symptom overlap amongst sufferers are endless. “Since the rise of COVID-19, it’s been pretty nerve wracking every time I get a migraine attack,” says Sarah from New Jersey, who’s been living with chronic migraine for the last six years. “I run super hot during migraine attacks and can start to sweat, which can make me think I have a fever.”
To make matters worse, it’s also the beginning of allergy season, when hay fever wreaks havoc on millions of migraine sufferers. “My migraine triggers are usually allergic reactions where my sinuses shut down,” Chelsea, another New Yorker who suffers from migraines, tells me. “In the past two weeks, I’ve had a three-day migraine, and the first day I was convinced I had been struck with coronavirus.”
When Jess Focht from Brooklyn, New York, was recently struck by her first migraine in more than a year, she freaked out. “I started to get panicked that I was having symptoms of COVID-19 — and the stress from that wasn’t helping my migraine situation!” she said. She believes her relapse is due to coronavirus-related stress.
It makes sense; outside of the diagnostic stress plaguing migraine-sufferers is the generalized stress of living through a pandemic. According to The American Headache Society, four out of every five people with migraines report stress as a trigger.
For many of us who live with migraines, just existing in 2020 is like walking through a fun-house of migraine triggers, and we’re all just trying to keep our heads from falling off.
“The hardest part of this from a migraine perspective is the anxiety, which then of course just contributes to the likelihood of getting one,” says Elizabeth Cutler, a migraineur from Washington, D.C. “There have been more than a few nights since all of this started when I’ve been lying awake at 2 a.m. anxious about the larger situation, then start to think about how not sleeping will lead to a migraine, and then from there I just spiral.”
Crumbling routines are a huge factor to the increased stress felt by everyone, but for migraine sufferers, our routines come with higher stakes. Lack of sleep, change in diet, change in season, even change in cleaning product can trigger an attack.
We strive to live within the boundaries of what we know not to trigger us — for example, staying away from certain foods — but those lines get blurrier and blurrier the more everyday life changes due to coronavirus. Laura Fitzpatrick in Los Angeles speculates irregular sleep along with diet and exercise changes are among the reasons why she’s gone from one to two migraines a month to three in just the last two weeks.
Lindsay, a Freelance Writer in Philadelphia, is in a similar boat. “I had got to a point where I was able to get the attacks down by 70% through stress management, a new work structure, yoga and meditation,” she told me. “But then the world happened.”
Alyssa Ashton, a Content Manager in Toronto, Ontario, knows that even the smallest change can trigger a migraine. “My routine has been thrown off by working from home,” she told me. “I think I haven’t been drinking enough water.”
Perhaps the most pressing issue facing migraine patients during coronavirus is access to treatment. While the average person might be able to quiet a headache using over-the-counter medication, migraines can require extensive pain management, much of which requires consistent in-person appointments with in-demand specialists and hands-on services like massage therapists and acupuncturists.
“Trying to make progress with a disabling chronic illness like migraine is hard enough even with access to regular high-quality medical care,” points out Angie, an editor at “Migraine Again,” an online resource for migraine sufferers. “This pandemic is making it so much harder for those of us with chronic (but not deadly) disease to access the resources we need to manage our conditions.”
The fear of not being able to access migraine specialists is at front of mind for many patients. “My biggest concern is that I will somehow not be able to get my pain meds” says Alex, a PhD student at George Washington University. “I am entirely reliant on triptans to function,” she explained. “I saw my neurologist two Tuesdays ago, and that is the last time I left my house. I was scared to be in a public environment but not seeing my neurologist for a standing appointment is not an option.”
Barbara, a writer in Ohio, is already taking precautions to avoid running out of her prescriptions. “I have a decent quantity of medication on hand, but I’m still leery of running out so I’m conserving,” she said. “Today I took half a Maxalt.”
There seemed to be a sense of guilt underlying so many of the conversations I had with my fellow migraine-sufferers. I’m in pain, but I know it could be worse.
To everyone whose head is on fire while the world burns around us: You are not alone. To learn about resources available for migraine sufferers, visit the American Migraine Foundation Resource Center or National Headache Foundation Resource Center.
Sophie Vershbow is the Assistant Social Media Director for a large book publisher. A lifelong New Yorker, her writing has appeared in Vulture, Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @svershbow.