Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Childbirth v Migraine


I should just preface this by saying: Mum, don’t worry I’m not pregnant.




Last weekend I went to my first ever baby shower, for my oldest friend in the whole world. I wish her, above all, a pain-free smooth-sailing birth, and a healthy happy baby. The below, so she doesn’t punch me in the face, is no reflection on her at all.

But being surrounded by all the baby grows, which inevitably led to talk of epidurals versus cesareans versus hypno births, once again got me thinking about the similarities between the pain of childbirth and the pain of migraine.

So I am now about to have a debate – with myself – on the topic of Childbirth v Migraine. You might think this is impossible, you might think I am crazy (probably true), and I also hate debating so this will probably fail. I was the kind of child who, when taunted in the playground, would return two days later with the perfect come-back retort, usually to a blank face as the bully had, by then, completely forgotten what we were debating/pulling hair over. But here goes…

I should also point out that I have never given birth, so obviously I don’t really know what I’m talking about and don’t mean to cause offence!

Migraine: Pro

On the introduction page to “The MigraineBrain” (actually the opening lines) by Dr Carolyn Bernstein, is a quote from Melissa, a woman in her 30’s, who has suffered excruciating migraines since childhood. She has just given birth to her first child, and asked to describe labour she says that the obstetrician instructed her to let him know when the pain got really intense so he could give her an epidural but before she knew it – her daughter was born “without any anesthetic”.

“When people say childbirth is one of the worst pains there is, I’m sorry, it’s not!” 
(Melissa, pg1. The Migraine Brain.)

The main difference, as I see it, between migraine and childbirth is that after 48 hours (or however long your labour lasts) of excruciating pain, you have a beautiful new baby to show for it. It has been worth it. It has been for something. Migraine, by contrast, is a totally pointless pain. Untreated my migraines will last about 3 days, so 72 hours. At the end I will feel battered, bruised, tearful and it will take me days to recover - all for nothing. I also know I’ll have to go through the whole process again sometime soon.

  • Choice. Women, mostly, chose to bring life into this world. So they willingly (personally I think you’re all crazy and we need to invent some kind of system where you can lay an egg) go through this ‘natural’ process. Migraineurs have no choice.


  •  Perseverance & Judgment. No one denies that childbirth can be one of the most painful experiences, for some of course it’s a breeze. I love the moment in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning Of Life' when Terry Jones’ character just plops out a baby whilst doing the washing up! (Video below – warning outrageous language!). And of course, it can be the same with migraines. A woman who gets migraines might say childbirth was, for her, far more painful. Everyone experiences these things differently, they’re totally individual and almost impossible to quantify. But I often hear mother’s to-be saying they feel they have a challenge to overcome with getting through labour, they want to prove they can do it. It almost seems to be a matter of pride, of perseverance. Conversely, I have no pride. Knock me out and wake me up when it’s over. And those women who judge mothers for getting cesareans and epidurals, well I judge you. If my migraines last 72 hours un-medicated and I’ve been getting them coming up 14 years, doesn’t that mean I’ve essentially given birth about 1,000 times? I have nothing to prove. I know my body can handle pain thank you very much.


('Every Sperm is Sacred' from The Meaning of Life - explicit language)


Childbirth: Pro
  • Why don’t we talk about what happens? I’ve seen so many new mothers, right after childbirth, literally shell-shocked at what their body has just put them through. They are traumatized, even the ones who have been to antenatal classes. But people, every other person on the planet, since the beginning of time HAS BEEN DOING THIS. It’s nothing new!!! I don’t understand why it’s all shrouded in mystery, well it’s not so much any more – but I’m always astounded when I meet pregnant women or new mothers who are surprised at what’s happening, or just happened, to them. When new mothers find it hard to breast-feed, for example, no one told them it didn’t just happen ‘naturally’ and they feel ashamed, or when they’re judged for using formula; that is shocking in this day and age. And it’s the same with migraine – we’ve known about this condition for thousands of years. 1 in 6 people in the UK have migraine, 190,000 people every day get a migraine so why don’t we talk about it more, and help each other instead of judging one another as neurotic hypochondriacs? Of course migraine doesn't hold the threat of mortal danger that childbirth can, but that's even more reason for women to openly talk to one another about their experiences. 


('The Miracle of Birth' sketch from The Meaning of Life, I hope this never happens to anyone!)


  • We forget pain. Or rather we forget the searing heat and intensity of that specific pain. If we didn’t, no one would ever have a child again! My sister has three of them. I also think this is the single biggest reason I’ve been able to get on with my life. When you don’t have a migraine and feel fine you forget you ever had one in the first place.

Ok, I’m now aware this debate isn’t really a very balanced argument, I did warn you I was terrible at debating. I once lost our school a national debate because I thought it was ridiculous that fans could possibly be upset at the band Take That splitting up. The opposing team responded that Child-Line has been inundated with calls from suicidal teenagers. Whoops. I also really wish I’d seen Take That live in concert.

In closing, my argument is that all I really want to do is highlight the similarities between the two experiences. My wish is that all lovely mothers to-be get the help and support they need, and that no-one judges them for whatever choices and experiences they go through, and that they prepare as much as possible for childbirth. Likewise for migraineurs. Educate yourself about this potentially disabling condition, learn everything you can about your migraine and get specialist help and don’t be ashamed to get all the help you need. And if it’s comforting to know that, for some, childbirth has been just as painful, or even nowhere near as painful, as a migraine then tell that to those who dismiss you as a moaning minnie with “just a headache”.


I’d love to hear from women who have both given birth and have migraines. How did the two compare? Obviously, as I mentioned above, both are such individual and variable experiences, it’s impossible to generalize but it would be great to hear some more first hand accounts…and obviously I wish all those who are about to give birth a smooth speedy labour.

20 comments:

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  2. I've given birth twice,21 and 18 years ago. I've had migraines for 30 years. My first labour lasted 31 hours,the second just 8 hours. Because I was used to dealing with intense pain I had both babies using just Entonox (gas + air). I find my pain threshold both physical and emotional is pretty high, I put this down to having dealt with migraines and the aftermath,prejudice and scorn that they bring. Tell someone u were in labour for 31 hours and they treat u as superhuman, say you've had migraines for 30 YEARS and u get a shrug and a tut,at best. Give me labour anyday! (But would rather not have anymore bloody kids!!).

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    1. Hi Paula, I think you've hit the nail on the head with this last sentence (though obviously i'm sure your darling children are fabulous). You get so much 'cred' and congratulations and respect for 'making it through' 30 hour labour - but are seen as a hypochrondriac if you say 'I've just spent the last three days with a disabling migraine"....people just don't understand what migraines are/do I guess. Though labour is no walk in the park either! x

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  3. Migraine is miles worse than labour pain and I will never understand why in labour you are offered all the painkillers you want, but with a migraine that lasts up to a week, there are no painkillers offered except OTC,or pathetic cocodamol. Totally unfair.

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    1. Good point Gill! I guess a lot of Doc's just don't know how to help us with our pain, sadly! And then if we do take OTC or cocodamol etc we get MOH in a heartbeat....or at least I did. I recently had gas&air for an injection procedure in my neck, the same you get in labour and was wondering how I could get my hands on some to have at home for bad migraines! I know cluster headaches benefit from pure oxygen but this gas & air was quite nice...didn't stop the pain exactly but nice out of body....we should be offered that hee hee!

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  4. I have been a migraine patient for 25 years (chronic for eight) and gave birth to my first child a year and a half ago. Hands down, a migraine is more painful than labour and birth (including the episiotomy, lateral tearing and forcep delivery). I think it has to with where the pain is located. Migraines occur in our main control centre; our brains. When the pain is elsewhere, I find I can use my brain to distract more effectively (ie. watch tv, read, talk, music). This is not the case with a migraine because everything is controlled by our brains. We are completely debilitated when these hit us. I would echo the above sentiments....give me labour and delivery any day!

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    1. Hi Catherine, this is a really interesting point - when I have a migraine I can't read/watch tv or even meditate etc as you say your central system is debilitated...though pretty sure women going through horrific labour can't do any of those things either! Guess it just really depends doesn't it - as pain is so different for all of us but great point

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  5. I wish I could show my friend this as she has used labour as a way of downplaying my pain before. But she is so stubborn I doubt even showing her this would convince her.

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    1. No changing some people's opinions sadly! Hope you're well?

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    2. Up and down, had a fair few side effects. Currently I have a constant ache where the put them in my shoulders and get a sharp pain if I put any pressure there :/ and i can't lean forward without the back of my head aching... but hopefully these will fade soon. I've been using a fair amount of Naproxen, with Giles approval of course!

      Did you see the news today about the genetic link they found?

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    3. I did! Yeah because of the weakening potential to neck/shoulder muscles that's why I didn't continue - maybe could you see a physio? But as you say hopefully will weaken. Also, think I sent you a link to Elen's diary from migraine.com as she talks abotu this a bit. Is it helping yet with the 'headache' bit...or is it all too tied up?

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  6. What? I don't know anything about the neck and shoulder muscles weakening potential? Can you send me a link because I would like some explanation for this pain.

    If you did send me a link i don't remember lol so could you send it again please?

    I had a 3 day headache after the treatment but it's improving so i think it's just a waiting game now.

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  7. Hi Victoria! Until I started reading about comparison between migraine & childbirth, I never would've commented on it. Especially as someone who's never experienced childbirth. But then people around me - young mothers, including my nephew's wife - started telling me their feelings: migraine is definitely worse. This surprised me, but then I read your essay. Migraine is not optional, predictable, or has an end in sight, and there is never anything wonderful revealed at the end of it to make it worthwhile. And for the really lucky ones, it happens every single day. Ugh:( Thank you for so nicely writing about my feelings - that probably wasn't your intent:) but thank you. Linda

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  8. To state that all those mothers to be get all the support they need proves that you have no experience of pregnancy and child birth at all. It is foolish to compare the two levels of pain as if there is a prize at the end of childbirth which for many women is not so.

    Victoria, once you have gone through childbirth yourself then you should rewrite this article! As a midwife I assure you it will then be very different!

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  9. I have had migraine for 37 of my 42 years and had my one and only child nearly 20 years ago. I was fine for the first three months of the pregnancy then the migraine kicked in - 2 or 3 times a day the aura would kick in, the vomiting would start (as if morning sickness weren't enough) and the pain would start. The only good thing was they were short lived so while I would be knackered by the end of the day, the pain would have gone. Until the next morning. I ate mostly toast and barely gained the 10kg that is usually expected. I have been fortunate in both my doctors and my workplaces that they have been supportive of my migraine. I also have a lovely midwife who was very supportive when I was pregnant.

    But while the pain of a 28 labour goes and you do indeed have a beautiful child at the end of it (not for all women I know) the pain of migraine comes along, smacks you round the head with the force of 4x2 wielded by a certifiable lunatic and if you are lucky your memory doesn't go on holiday for days or even weeks, you may have normal energy levels return after three or four days and if you are really lucky the contents of your stomach may stay where you put them. If you are not, those contents will keep coming up until your throat is raw and bleeding and you are in hospital on a drip with anti nausea medication coursing through your veins; your memory will be AWOL to the point where you feel you have early onset Alzheimers and you are so damn tired opening your eyes leaves you ready for a nap. And you can guarantee that you will be repeating this experience many more times with little to show for it except medication hangovers and weight gain from preventatives that causes its own issues in addition to the ones you already have.

    That said, in between the migraine, you can feel normal, tell yourself that it's over and pretend it won't happen again (the power of self delusion :-))

    But - both experiences can cause incredible pain that can leave you with unexpected side effects (I have pelvic congestion syndrome - essentially varicose veins in the pelvis - from my labour with a child that was far too happy in to want to come out!)
    and the level of support can vary drastically between people not forgetting everyone's experience of pain (and how they handle it) is different. All the people around us can do is give us what we need (not a generic solution) so that we can get ourselves better. Hopefully all that made sense - a post-migraine brain is not always a coherent one!







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    1. Hi Leonie, wow - thank you SO much for sharing all of this. I think you make perfect sense and lay out what it's really like for those of us who don't know! I can't believe you had pelvic congestion sydrome as well - on top of everything! I hope you're doing well today though! Thanks again

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    2. Knackered but at least it doesn't feel like a set of homicidal dwarves are trying to excavate the inside of my skull :-)

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  10. I've never had a child, but I have had encephalitis and meningitis. Every time a severe migraine hits, in terms of pain, there is no difference.

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  11. I've never given birth, but I've had Encephalitis and Meningitis. I suffer from severe migraines as well. In terms of pain, they are equal.

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  12. I've suffered from severe migraines since childhood. Sometimes I would go months getting them 5-6 times a week. Every migraine has a different level of intensity, different level of pain. Mine were nothing short of being unable to walk, extreme nausea, vomiting throughout the entire migraine, wishing you would just drop dead as every beat of your heart is like a hammer hitting you in the head. Then the aftermath of the migraine, maybe the pain is gone but the feeling like you just got hit by a truck...ugh.
    That being said, I found labour to be worse. I had a completely natural childbirth. I completely went into it thinking childbirth is nothing compared to migraines. When those contractions start coming intop of one another not giving you any chance to 'breathe' in-between, you're not focusing your mind on happier times, watching tv or even thinking 'oh this is nothing compared to a migraine'. All you're thinking about is "get this kid out of me so the pain will stop". That's one difference between childbirth and migraines, you know when the pain will end. However, you just can't compare the two no matter how hard you try. Both are extreme in pain, different locations on the body.

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