Symptoms of some migraines can be hard to tell apart from a stroke.

Serene BransonCredit:

Migraines affect thousands of people every day. Sometimes people will use the term 'migraine' to refer to any intense headache. But a migraine is a very specific kind of headache, frequently one-sided and accompanied with nausea and light-sensitivity. Sometimes vision is affected producing migraines with ‘auras’. But migraines can offer symptoms different from those commonly known. Recently, reporter Serene Branson, made headlines herself when she found herself on camera spouting garbled words during the post-Grammy Awards coverage.

After a thorough examination, Serene’s doctors diagnosed her as having suffered a ‘complex migraine’. Years ago I had a similar experience in which I simply couldn’t remember words. It was bizarre. It was just like when you can’t remember a word – like it is right on the tip of your tongue – only before long I couldn’t remember any words beyond “yes” and “no”. Because I did not go to the hospital the migraine escalated into pain and misery the like of which I have never before suffered.

The brain is amazingly complicated and in the case of Serene’s and my migraines, the constriction of blood flow affected the brocca center, a part of the brain where the memory of words is stored. One of the curious things I remember about the ‘complex migraine’ was that I understood everything everyone else said. I simply couldn’t remember the words to respond. When Serene was asked if she thought about a stroke at the time, she said she was only aware something was very wrong. I had the same experience. When something that unexpectedly strange happens to you, you focus on just trying to keep it together and not get overwhelmed by the shock and fear.

Later I certainly did think about strokes. Having experienced what it feels like to have a part of the brain malfunction, I now have a compassion for people with brain damage that I never had before. Although I did not suffer from a stroke, I had a clear view into how the brain works and what it can feel like not to have the body respond the way it always has. I now know that these brain malfunctions can make you act stupidly or strangely even though your awareness and intelligence remain unaffected.

Sometimes the complex migraine only happens once in a lifetime. Although I have experienced numerous incidents of the more common type migraine headaches, I did have a second experience with ephasia (the loss of verbal memory) recently – 30 years after my initial incident. Happily, because I now have a prescription for one of the triptan (tryptamine-based  migraine treatment) drugs , I was able to head off the development of the ‘complex migraine’. But I now know that migraines don’t always follow prescribed symptoms. And that means that any malfunction – whether it is a migraine, stroke or anything else -- should never be taken lightly. Without the proper tests, you cannot tell the difference!

If you or a friend should ever have an experience like the migraines suffered by Serene Branson and me, go directly for medical help. By not going to a hospital I suffered excruciating pain. And there is no way to guarantee exactly what is happening when there is a cerebral malfunction. Strokes can manifest in a similar way and taking immediate action can mean the difference between life, added pain,  permanent damage and death. Always let an experienced physician make the judgment as to whether it is a migraine or a stroke.