MIgraines are Weird

What are Migraines, Part 1: Migraines are Weird

Right off the bat, I think it’s important that we acknowledge that migraines are a bizarre and perplexing biological phenomenon. As anyone who’s had one knows, they are oftentimes excruciating, agonizing, and debilitating – features that would lead you to believe they serve a very important biological function. Yet, they appear to have no functional significance whatsoever. So what’s up with that?

In the course of our lives as human beings, we’re used to the concept of pain meaning something. Pain is supposed to be our body’s way of alerting us that there’s a threat to our health and survival. That way we can adjust our behavior accordingly. Touch a hot stovetop, and in very short order your brain notifies you that this is a bad idea.

Without accurate pain perception, then, we’re in serious trouble. Furthermore, the seriousness of the threat typically correlates to the degree of pain we perceive – a ruptured appendix hurts worse than a hangnail, for example. This, of course, makes perfect sense, since one of these things can kill you while the other won’t even garner sympathy from your spouse.

But then there’s migraine, which breaks all these rules. Migraines hurt. A lot. Often for long periods of time. Based on our experience with pain, this should mean something very bad has happened.

Yet, with migraine, nothing bad has happened. There is no imminent threat to your health and survival. There is no icepick jabbed into your eye, nor is the sunlight melting your retina. Given the intensity of the pain, it would be reasonable to assume that death was a foregone conclusion, likely at the hands of the 47 aneurysms that have obviously just ruptured.

Yet, your brain is fine. Normal, in fact. How on earth can that be?

Surprise, it’s opposite day!

In the course of normal events, the flow of pain information usually goes like this: an unpleasant happening in the body activates a pain sensing nerve (a “nociceptor”) in bodily tissue, triggering a nerve impulse. That impulse travels upstream towards the brain, terminating in the brain’s pain sensing center where it is then registered in our conscious perception as pain.

But what happens if you just skip that first part? What happens if the brain, without receiving any nerve impulse from the bodily tissue, just all on its own decides to flip on its pain sensing center (in this case, that part that senses pain in the cranium)?

A migraine, that’s what.

So in the case of migraine, we have a pain experience that isn’t grounded in any external reality. The brain’s pain centers are being flipped on not by any disturbance in the body, but by the migraine process itself. In other words, it’s an elaborate hoax being played on you, by you.

This is why we must begin by declaring that migraines are weird.

Of course, our next question should be, how and why does our brain do this? This is an important question, because if we can answer it then we’re well on our way towards understanding how to keep our brain from doing this in the first place. And we’re well on our way to migraine freedom.

Take Home Points:

  • Migraines happen in normal brains
  • Migraines are the result of a malfunction in pain processing, or specifically pain processing in reverse
  • Migraines are weird.

Now let’s head onward to part 2: migraines classically defined.


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