Coping, Society, Symptoms

Migraine: A Surprisingly Visible Invisible Illness

Writer Anne Lamott describes someone with a migraine as having “a sort of death about the eyes.” As with pretty much everything she writes, her words draw a perfect picture.

I noticed long ago that I get dark circles under my eyes during a migraine. After reading Lamott’s line, I realized my eyes also appear to sink in their sockets.

To the untrained onlooker, migraine is an invisible illness. My loved ones have copious experience and can tell immediately when I have one — Hart’s the hardest to fool.

Flickr supports Lamott’s claim too. One of my favorite photos, by Jessica Reynolds, is above. Jenyepher’s migraine photos are excellent. Others to check out:

How are your migraines or headaches visible? Do many people notice?

20 thoughts on “Migraine: A Surprisingly Visible Invisible Illness”

  1. I suffer from migraine headaches and now vertigo. After one severe migraine my left eye was much smaller. After 2 years it has regained about 90 pc of its former size. It is not the pupil or size of the iris. I am thinking maybe the eyeball sunk. No one will believe me since it is not very noticeable. Can an eye doctor measure to tell if the eye has sunk?

    1. Diana, I’m not sure if a doctor can measure it. An ophthalmologist would be the most likely doctor to be able to do so. Best of luck in sorting out this mystery.

      Take care,

    1. Vince, that’s a complicated question. Have you seen a doctor for migraine abortive medication? If your migraine attacks happen more than a few times a month, you might be a good candidate for a migraine preventive. There are also many lifestyle changes that could reduce the frequency and/or severity of your attacks. I recommend reading The Migraine Brain by Carolyn Bernstein for suggestions.


  2. Go ahead feel the level of your (closed) eyes on your face. The next time you have a migraine feel them again. More often than not you can physically distinguish the sunken eye syndrome. Even better, use your iPhone or camera to take a picture of the before/after sunken eye effect. The eyeball either shrinks in diameter or the eye is pulled into the skull. No wonder there is a direct connection to light sensitivity. The pressure of the eye sinking into the head could be a cause of more pain. If more tests / case studies were conducted on alleviating eyeball pressure – like gently pulling the eyes forward with suction- I believe relief would come.

  3. when I get migraines really bad which is at least 3 times a month certain coworkers can tell they say they can see the pain in my eyes. I also get real dizzy and look like ill pass out. I work in a warehouse with a lot of noise and bright light so I have to go home. The meds I take for my migraine makes my whole body feel like its on fire.
    I also get sick to my stomach and because I get migraines so frequently my dark circles never go away I look like I have a double shiner with deep purple bruises under my eyes

  4. I just discovered this blog (the day after a migraine kept me in bed all day) and I am so thrilled that it’s hear.

    my best friend says that my eyes get glassy and sink in.

  5. With a really bad one (which I almost never get anymore), I am told I turn a sort of pale greenish-white.

    With medium-bad ones, I sort of sink into myself, and people can tell by the change in my demeanor.

  6. Yes, my friends and family say I have a certain “look” when I have a migraine.
    My son says I make a certain noise.
    My husband says my face and eyes look a different way.
    I look at myself and see a pale face, and sunken eyes.

  7. I agree that we all have a distinct look… wether with the eyes, or just looking tired, pale, sallow… when a true migraine hits- it effects our “vibe”. Most people can just look at me nd they can tell.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  8. Ditto, pretty much. My husband in particular can tell from the pain-dulled eyes, pallor, trouble finding words or thinking clearly. He and my (adult) children can tell just by hearing me say “hello” on the phone.

    My husband also recognizes one coming if the day before I’m super energetic and feel really healthy. He’s convinced that if I just wasn’t so active the day before, the migraines wouldn’t come. It’s such a rip-off to feel so good, only to be cut down my the next-day’s migraine!

    1. Hi Vicki, I’ve been a migraine sufferer since childhood and I also have the energetic feeling (on top of the world!) a day or two beforehand. It’s not the cause of your migraine, it’s your prodome and the migraine is on it’s unstoppable way already, whether you like it or not. Mine is followed by ridiculous tiredness, so lethargic that I can hardly function and then the migraine but we all have different patterns.
      Rest assured that the spike in energy is just part of your pattern and not anything that you are doing wrong.

  9. Never had anyone be able to tell by looking at me – but they say they can hear it in my voice – a kind of strain – to quote paper wings – one of the migraineurs whose photos you link to above “Trying to hold myself still enough so the pain might not notice me.” That blew me away – I’m sure there’s a face that shows that for me, too, but it’s definitely in my voice – losing my usual dramatic delivery!

    – Megs

  10. I’ve gotten good at hiding the pain, but I tend to get dark circles under my eyes when I don’t feel well. I think the most obvious thing is my personality change though… I’m usually very energetic when I’m feeling fine, but I get really impatient when I’m not.

  11. without a doubt, the eyes give it all away! My hubs will just look at me and tell me straight out, “you don’t look good, it’s coming.” Even my kids will tell HIM that I haven’t been looking good/well.

    Dark circles, sunken eyes. they tear up and become blood-shot. My pupils become enlarged, and the right eye will cast itself lower than the left, in it’s “sleepy” way. Now that the migraine has manifested itself to both sides of my head, I no longer get the tears on just the right, but the left as well.

    This started about three days ago, slow and steady; working it’s way up, I might add.

    Yes, we all have a certain “look” about us.

  12. A friend of mine can always tell by looking in my eyes. I asked her once what she saw and she said she can’t describe it, she just sees the pain. Once I got a migraine at work while talking to her–seriously, it just came from out of nowhere and hit me and she said I went white, almost gray, in the face and my eyes got that look to them. It freaked me out how it just hit me, and it freaked her out seeing it happen right before her eyes.

    Christy–that’s really interesting about the prodome and how your daughter noticed! I get really confused & irritable with my prodome, so it’s often mistaken for something else.

  13. I’ve become an expert at functioning and sometimes even smiling through pain because the job requires it. But those closest to me can tell by the sunken-ness of my eyes when I’m hurting.

  14. My family and some of my co-workers can tell I have a migraine just by looking at me. My daughter even noticed a prodrome I hadn’t recognized: she says sometimes when I’m getting a migraine I tell a bunch of stupid jokes and laugh loudly at them. I didn’t believe her at first but since then I’ve noticed that it’s true!

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