I have migraines. Migraine type I – chronic to be exact. I started having headaches early in life and they reached their peak (I hope) when I was in high school and the beginning of college. (I pretty much self taught my last two years of high school and had to drop out of college for a term.) About a year and a half ago I switched physicians, and my current drug and biofeedback regime is working very well.

However, several days ago I got one of the worst headaches I’ve had in a couple of years (bad enough I thought about an ER visit). This left me using a technique I haven’t utilized in a while -- that is, banging my head into the wall, or using the heel of the palm of my hand to hit myself in the forehead.

If you have not had migraines or perhaps other pain issues, this behavior may seem irrational or even scary. I’ve had several friends or family members freak out before we’ve had “the talk”.

To understand this you need to know how migraineurs feel, or at least some of us feel. When you get a migraine there are several different symptom groups: dizziness/nausea; sensitivity (photophobia and phonophobia); visual disturbances; and finally sheer physical pain. Anyone one of these things is not a lot of fun, but when they layer on top of each other it’s just too much stimulation. **

Sometimes it is enough to squirrel yourself away in a dark room, but other times laying in the fetal position with you hands over your head doesn’t cut it, because too much is going on. Too much sickness, too much pain and it’s all stuck in your head and it isn’t coming out. In fact this is why many migraineurs dream of just cracking open their heads, because in this fantasy at least, everything that has been building inside can be released, just like opening a valve to let out steam.

At this point, not thinking, a lot of people just start banging their head on something or hitting their forehead with their hand, and to their surprise seem to get relief from it! So why does it feel better? Well imagine that you quantify the pain as a 10. When you hit your head for a brief moment you pain increases to a 12, but then it begins to recede back down to a 10 again. This feeling of the pain dissipating is what makes you feel better. Granted, your base level of pain is still a 10, but the feeling of it going down when nothing else is helping feels wonderful.

For those of you who haven’t experienced this, you may be asking, why not simply take painkillers? Well, they don’t really work on the headache itself, often cause rebound headaches, and can lead to addiction. So I have found that when my usual as needed headache treatments don’t work, a little pain can help mitigate a much bigger one.

** If you want to see a good representation of this on film, get Darren Aronofsky’s movie Pi, which documents the photophobia and phonophobia well. I should point out that the character that is experiencing this in the film is having a nervous breakdown too. Most migraineurs have it together mentally, even though they are miserable during an attack.