Unbearable, blinding pain. Blurred vision. Extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Nausea. Unquenchable thirst. The inability to move my head more than a few millimeters without wanting to cry – knowing that I can’t cry because it will only make it worse. Hello, my name is Melanie, and I’m a migraine sufferer.
Some of the worst pain I have experienced in my lifetime can be attributed to migraines. I’ve been suffering from migraines for approximately 3-4 years now, and until recently they were strictly associated with the beginning of my menstrual cycle, which meant that they were predictable and expected once a month. I also know that my aunt on my mother’s side suffers from migraines during her menstrual cycle, so I assume that this is something hereditary and hormonal that I’ll have to deal with. However, I have recently gotten hit with migraines completely out of the blue, with my period nowhere in sight. That’s when I found out that the peak age for migraines is between 30 and 39, and I thought “Great, I have at least 9 more years of this to deal with?”
The National Headache Foundation estimates that 28 million Americans suffer from migraines. More women than men get migraines and a quarter of all women with migraines suffer four or more attacks a month; 35% experience 1-4 severe attacks a month, and 40% experience one or less than one severe attack a month. Each migraine can last from four hours to three days. Occasionally, it will last longer. It has been estimated that 70% of migraine sufferers are female. Of these female migraine sufferers, 60%-70% report a menstrual relationship to their migraine attacks. (*from WebMD).
Though the exact cause of migraines is unknown, there are several external factors that have been noted as possible triggers: emotional stress, caffeine, menstrual periods, excessive fatigue, changing weather conditions, and sensitivity to specific chemicals and/or preservatives in foods. There are also some existing medical conditions with which migraines are more commonly associated, such as asthma, hypertension, stroke, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and others.
A migraine is a pounding or throbbing headache that often begins as a dull ached but develops into a throbbing pain. The pain is usually aggravated by phsycial activity, and can shift from one side of the head to the other, or in can affect the front of the head or feel like it’s affecting the entire head. Other symptoms include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, sensations of being very warm or very cold, dizziness, blurred vision, stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, fatigue, paleness, diarrhea, and in some rare cases, fever. The unquenchable thirst that I experience is something that I’ve never heard as a symptom associated with migraines, but I assume that it is associated with the sensation of feeling extremely warm.
Migraines can last anywhere from 4-72 hours, and can occur with or without “aura.” An “aura” is a physiological warning sign that a migraine is about to begin. Approximately 20%-30% of migraine sufferers experience aura which can occur one hour before the attack of pain and last anywhere from 15-60 minutes, but never longer than an hour. Visual auras can include bright flashing dots or lights, blind spots, distorted vision, temporary loss of vision, and wavy or jagged lines. Ringing in the ears is a non-visual aura that can occur. Personally, I have never experienced aura along with my migraines, but I can see where the warning would come in handy.
Migraines can sometimes be confused with cluster headaches or even tension headaches, and because they do share some of the same symptoms, you should have a doctor diagnose you before beginning any self-treatment. Your doctor may prescribe a migraine treatment drug such as Zomig, Topamax or Imitrex, which you should discuss with your doctor in detail. Keep in mind that both drugs have several possible side effects, so make sure to read all prescribing information fully before beginning treatment.
If, however, you’re like me and you have no desire to partake in any of the aforementioned “possible” side effects of such a drug, there are things you can do yourself to lessen the effects of the migraine once it has struck. My “migraine ritual” is as follows: I take 2 Advil Migraine pills (Be careful not to overmedicate! You could end up with a rebound headache.), I change into loose, comfortable clothes, grab a bottle of water from the fridge and head to my bedroom. Once there, I close the door tight so that my pets can’t come in and “check on me.” I then turn the air conditioning on the highest setting, close the blinds (if it’s during the day) or turn off the lights, and lay very still on my bed, my head on a soft pillow, with a cool cloth draped over my forehead. 99.9% of the time, I will fall asleep, which is a blessing. This ritual has worked for me time and again, and I stand by its effectiveness. The three key things to remember are: dark, cool, quiet.
Unfortunately, migraines don’t always attack when you’re at home and can lay down and rest until it goes away. I’ve had my share of migraines which begin while I’m at work. Luckily, I have an understanding boss who will normally let me go home early when an attack occurs. If you can’t leave early however, take a couple of Advil Migraine with lots of water and try to avoid your computer screen as much as possible. I’ve noticed that staring at the computer will always intensify my migraines. If you can leave early, do so.
You can reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks by identifying and then avoiding migraine triggers, some of which I have mentioned above. You might want to even try keeping a headache diary, which could help you to identify, and thusly avoid, your migraine triggers. Stress management and a regular sleep schedule can also help. According to a study by a University of North Carolina sleep specialist, there is scientific evidence that good sleep habits can reduce the number and severity of migraines. Remember, there is no cure for migraines. But you can help yourself. Do your research, talk to your doctor. And when a cure is finally discovered, I’ll see you while we’re waiting in line for it.