What do people with Migraine hate more than attacks themselves? The ER. Specifically, going to a hospital emergency room in the midst of an attack that just won’t stop. As Migraine experiences go, it’s one of the most painful. Not as bad as losing a spouse or a job but sometimes it feels close.
Depending on where you live and how familiar your local hospital is with Migraine, it can either be a horror story or a lifesaver.
We’re kicking off our three-part series on Migraine Emergencies with first-hand accounts of what really happens when you go to the ER with Migraine, as told by members in our Migraine Again Facebook community. If you haven’t already ‘Liked’ our page, take a minute and do so now. It’s a great place to discover people just like you who are struggling with the brutal reality of unpredictable pain.
Most people report going to the ER because of an intractable Migraine attack that can’t be resolved at home; or symptoms that are different, strange and stroke-like, requiring further assessment. For others, friends and co-workers insist they get hospital care because they feel scared and helpless watching the Migraine (cue vomit, vertigo, partial blindness) unfold.
Here’s what to expect when you go to the ER with Migraine:
With the lights and sounds, the ER is not a Migraine friendly place.
You sit. And sit. And it’s not a Migraine-friendly place.
We all know that triage rules apply, and Migraine isn’t a life-threatening condition like a gunshot wound. That doesn’t make the long wait any easier.
“I get ushered from one waiting room to the next with more people in each one. The final one is set up as a cubicle style and they talk to you like you’re an addict.” – Jeannette G.
“Last time I went to the ER, I was charged $500 to sit on a bed in a hallway.” – Anna K.
“I HATE BEING IN THE ER with a migraine especially. No one ever seemed to observe the no perfume/scents rule. The fluorescent lights are horrible. The noise is extra, extra noisy.” -Laura M.
“I’m sensitive to light, sound, smell and none of the injections I get ever help so why in the world would I go to the loudest, brightest, smelliest place there is just to sit and be ignored for hours to maybe get meds that don’t even help?” -Barbara D.
You have to prove your pain. And that you’re not a drug addict.
People with Migraine are often accused of drug-seeking, especially people of color.
The abuse of and addiction to opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain relievers is a serious global problem that’s escalating annually. ERs are trained to screen us all the same: hmmm, could you be one of the 36 million opioid abusers worldwide?
That complicates the problem of Migraine as an invisible illness for which there’s no scan or blood test to easily prove your diagnosis. The stigma continues.
“They think you are there because you are a “druggie”, ask you a million and one questions that you can’t answer because of the migraine fog.” – Jaselle H.
“They assumed I was a drug addict because I was in my mid twenties and writhing in pain with “no discernible reason”. Then I got an IV and froze for a few hours before going home.” – Lorenzo T.
“I’m allergic to normal migraine meds and when I told them that, the doctor stormed out, came back with a syringe, gave it to the nurse and told me that he’d give me Demerol this time to help get rid of the headache but that I’d better never come back again because he was never giving me that med again. He said if I wanted it, I’d have to get it from someone else. It was the first and only time I’d gone to the ER for a migraine. I was so insulted and demeaned, I would never go back again. I couldn’t believe it.” – Andi S.
“HAAAAATE being treated like a druggie just for being in pain! It’s like we are being punished for being aware of our bodies and knowing when something isn’t right with them! Even if I specifically mention a non-sedating, non-opiate medication, doctors look at me like I asked them to shoot me up with a needle full of heroin! The last thing I want is to be sedated even more than I naturally am–I’m just tired of being in pain every day even after all the NSAIDs I shovel down my throat (my poor liver and kidneys!)” – Anna K.
“They thought I was a drug seeker until they took my blood pressure — it was sky high from the pain. Plus I had my Neuro’s protocol for administering DHE-45. Not to mention I was covered in puke. I was bawling from lack of care and pain, husband almost got arrested for threatening the staff for not treating me. Yeah. Good times.” – Laura S.
They don’t know your history – and you’re in no shape to give clear direction.
Migraine isn’t life-threatening, so you’ll likely be put at the bottom of the list at the ER.
In the midst of an attack, few of us can complete a coherent sentence. The Migraine Babble and nurse triage questions don’t play well together.
“They thought I was a druggie because my speech was confused, it was quite a busy night and they were attending ‘more critical’ cases first, road accidents victims and all! All I was given was a vomit bag and sleeping tablets! Woke up 5 hours later and decided to go home! – Olè M.
“The ‘LAST’ time I went to the ER for a migraine I was in SO much pain I couldn’t see, I was in excruciating pain, I went in the wheelchair backwards because I just wanted to be in a ball and literally couldn’t straighten myself out. The check in person who takes vitals before they bring you back made me turn around in the wheelchair so she could get my vitals. I told them I couldn’t and I was just screaming no no no. She told me she couldn’t help me if I couldn’t sit straight. So I turned around and two seconds later I passed out cracked my head open on the floor and was unconscious for I don’t know how long.” – Skipper D.
Your ER doctor may, or may not, be very familiar with Migraine.
Watch a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, and it will become clear. You’re not going to get a board-certified headache specialist, or even a neurologist, in your local ER. After all, they’re trained to set a broken arm, remove a bullet and shock your heart. Stat!
“I was taken to the ER in an ambulance with Migraine Aura, thinking I was having a stroke because half of my tongue was numb and I was slurring my speech (typical Migraine Aura). Of course, the doctor who saw me was pissed that I wasted his time, and talked to me like I was an idiot.” – Monica S.
“That was my very last visit and I will NEVER go back for a migraine. It was very traumatic for me and made matters worse. I also think that ER docs are trained to treat emergencies and having a migraine is low on their list and not an emergency to them…so you are handled in a very, very slow manner and a lot of times without compassion.” – Cherry S.
“When I went the ER doctor was SUPER nice about it. They turned off the lights and made me do a CT scan. Since I had not had one that was like that, he was afraid I was having a stroke. Two days before I had gone in [to the same hospital] with the same migraine, but they treated it like a tension headache and acted like I was wasting their time.” – Megan P.
“After being stuck in constant migraine for 10 days and a very thorough assessment by my GP and A&E, for some reason I got put onto a cardiology ward because there isn’t a neurology ward. The ward sister was really rude openly about me taking up a bed when there is nothing wrong with my heart. I was seen by a rude cardiologist who shouted at me saying Amytryptiline is for depression not migraine, “why are you taking this? Are you depressed?” -Lisey D.
You’re not exactly “fine” when you leave.
No one wants to go to the ER for Migraine, but sometimes it is necessary.
In absence of a cure for Migraine, you’re going to get medication. And lots of it. Enough to knock out a horse. Better not make plans for tomorrow — that’s time for your Migraine hangover, aka postdrome.
“They give you “abortive meds.” Knock you out, send you home. Then you’re in a medicated induced coma for the rest of the day. Then you wake up the next day still having the same migraine.” – Jaselle H.
“Shot me up with meds so strong I couldn’t even move.” – Victoria S.
“Last time I was in the ER for a migraine they gave me the wrong meds which were too strong for me and I had a heart attack!! I went thinking they would make me better but instead it only made it worse!!” – Jessica A.
Take Our Poll Not all hospitals and emergency rooms are alike. Some are lifesavers.
Although it’s a fairly common complaint among ER patients, the space and process are designed to prioritize and treat life-threatening conditions, not Migraine. And to be fair, sometimes they do everything right.
“I have been to our local hospital here several times for a migraine. Couldn’t have been better cared for. The nurses turned the lights off and gave me a cool cloth to put over my eyes while I waited for the Dr. He gave me a shot of Imitrex and I have been taking the pills ever since. Changed my life. I was told that I would never have to wait out in the waiting room, there was always a cool dark room to wait in. Also, when I get the chills as I often do with migraines, they bring me heated blankets.” – Roberta C.
“They know me, and someone way back must’ve educated the ER staff– I’ve only had 1 bad experience on the 16 years I’ve been having these. It happened to be a just awful nurse that was showing her need to retire… ” – Hollyanna C.
“Luckily I get treated pretty well at the ER for migraines. Give me some meds and a drip and 5 mins later I feel great. With all the other “patients” that go to the ER they know I’m for real. Around here it’s a lot of people who think they are pregnant, or have a toothache that go to the ER. Mainly because they don’t have insurance.” – Meg W.
“My last visit to the ER for migraine was very straightforward and helpful. Checked out, IV fluids, Toradol, Compazine — actually was a good experience… (for a change).” – June B.
There’s a lot of pain and a lot of wisdom in these personal stories of ER for Migraine care — thanks to all who took time to share. That’s one of the best things about the Migraine Again community: we learn from each others’ disasters and victories.
Interested in discovering how to make the best of a tough situation? See Parts 2 and 3 of our series on Migraine Emergencies:
How to Make Migraine Emergencies a Bit Less Agonizing and
When Should You Go to the ER with a Migraine?
Just remember: you know yourself. If your symptoms are different than usual, always seek medical care from the ER, Urgent Care or a physician. Ignoring a life-threatening medical emergency isn’t worth it.
Updated April 2020
The post What Really Happens When You Go to the ER with Migraine appeared first on Migraine Again.
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