Serena Williams opens up about 'debilitating' migraines: 'I got used to playing through the pain'

Chelsea Ritschel
·3 min read

Serena Williams has opened up about struggling with debilitating migraines and how the invisible pain has affected her life and career.

In a new interview with People, the tennis champion revealed she was in her 20s when she first began experiencing “debilitating, throbbing pain”.

But unlike with illnesses or injuries that are visible, Williams said people didn’t understand why the migraines would impact her ability to practise or perform - so she learned to play “through the pain”.

“Migraine isn’t a knee injury - it’s something you can’t physically see,” she explained, adding that her father, who acted as her coach until 2012, didn’t understand her sensitivity to sun. “You can’t really say: ‘Oh, Dad, I have a migraine. I’m going to stop playing.’ People are like: ‘I don’t see swelling. I don’t see bruising. Tough it out.’ I got used to playing through the pain.”

The four-time Olympian also didn’t want to make it seem like she was using the migraines as an excuse for her losses.

“You can't go into a press conference with the media asking: ‘Well, what happened?’ and say ‘Well I had a migraine attack,’” she told the outlet. “I had to figure out a way to work through it.”

According to the 35-year-old, quarantine with her husband Alexis Ohanian and their two-year-old daughter Olympia amid the recent coronavirus pandemic has made the migraines worse because it was “incredibly stressful”.

“It’s all incredibly stressful,” Williams said. “I was dealing with a lot of stress and unknown factors and things that I wasn’t used to, and so I think that was contributing to my migraine attacks and making them more frequent.

"I would be so intense with the baby all day long, and then, at night, I would have this long migraine."

According to Williams, she has since signed on to be a spokesperson for the doctor-prescribed migraine drug Ubrelvy after finding it worked for her.

On social media, Williams’ admission was met with support from fans who also suffer with migraines, with many applauding her for raising awareness about the invisible condition.

“As an acute and frequent migraine suffered since age four, I have serious empathy for Serena’s struggle,” one person tweeted.

Another said: “Thanks for speaking up, @serenawilliams! From one migraine warrior to another, thank you.”

According to the NHS, migraines are a common condition that affect around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. Despite being so common, the cause of migraines is unknown and there is currently no cure, however, treatments are available.

This is not the first time the professional athlete has been transparent about her health issues. In 2018, Williams, who suffers from blood clots, revealed she “almost died” following the birth of her daughter due to a series of complications, including a pulmonary embolism that led to multiple surgeries.

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