There are few things more impeding than physical pain. As migraine sufferers will attest, migraine headaches can cause the fast pace of life to slow dramatically and, many times, can even bring things to a screeching halt.
June is National Migraine Awareness Month.
In addition to producing vast, physical discomfort, migraine headaches also interrupt daily routines and postpone important commitments, causing many sufferers to feel frustrated and less in control of their lives.
Dr. Michael Sellman, Chief of Neurology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, reports that migraine headaches are routinely the most frequent medical complaint seen in his office.
“Migraine headaches typically begin in adolescence or young adult life. They can be genetic in nature and inherited from mother or father.”
While both women and men suffer from these headaches, Sellman reports that women tend to be more likely to experience migraines at some point during their lives. “Women get migraine headaches three times more often than men. It is estimated that 15% of all women get migraine headaches and 5% of all men,” explains Sellman.
“There are multiple causes of migraine headaches. About 15% of migraines occur shortly before a woman's menstrual cycle. Certain foods have been implicated to trigger a migraine. These include chocolate, strong cheese, onions, oranges and tomatoes. Red wine and sometimes beer frequently precipitates a migraine attack. Rapid changes in barometric pressure (impending rain storm) can trigger a migraine headache,” says Sellman.
For many individuals who suffer from migraines, stress is both a symptom and a trigger. Stress can cause migraines and obviously migraines produce extreme stress.
Sarah Bayle, an editor and project manager, who has experienced migraine headaches since middle school, describes the onset of a migraine as a full-body experience.
“Migraines are horrible, full-body pain experiences. During an attack, my body vibrates, and I feel like I am being simultaneously jabbed with pins while my head is slammed against a concrete wall over and over and over. Even the quietest noises begin to sound like bombs imploding. But the pain is not the worst part.”
Bayle goes on to explain that, in her opinion, the worst thing about having to deal with migraines is the stigma attached the debilitating effects they cause and the fact that this particular ailment can be so difficult to treat.
“Doctors, even in this advanced age of medicine, still don't totally understand migraines, and treatment is still limited. We live in a society where personal responsibility is valued above all else. If I had a dollar for every time a doctor, friend, coworker, or family member asked me why I have so many headaches and why I can't just ‘get over’ them, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that this is my fault or a simply matter of will, I would be the richest woman alive. You learn to live with debilitating pain because you have to, and then because you are able to live with it, people question if it's really that bad—it is, and the weight of others' lack of understanding is almost as bad as a migraine,” she says.
Jennifer Engle, owner of a marketing and communications company, also feels the affects of these debilitating headaches.
She describes the onset of the headaches she experiences as well as the restrictions she has had to learn to live with as a result of the physical discomfort:
“Sometimes migraines wake me up in the middle of the night, generally with a throbbing pain that starts in the back of my head and moves to above one eye. The pain is excruciating. Any type of light is painful, and often I am nauseated (sometimes to the point of throwing up). I also frequently get chills. Basically, with all these symptoms, I am miserable and find it very difficult to concentrate on anything.”
Engle agrees that taking migraine medication can be helpful sometimes, but isn’t a guaranteed remedy by any means (nor is much else when it comes to migraines).
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“I do take medication (carry it with me all the time) at the onset, when possible. Usually, it takes 45 minutes to an hour to have any effect. Often, the symptoms get worse before they get better – depending on when in the headache cycle I take them. [The pills] do ease the pain, making it somewhat bearable but I am frequently very tired for a day or so after. If you don't have medication, migraines can last a day or more. Generally, I try to sleep them off. It's a matter of getting to a bed in a dark room. I have to force myself to be calm (not an easy task with the pain) and try to relax enough to fall asleep. I've been known to go into a dark closet or put on sunglasses if I'm at work and have to get something done. It's very frustrating to have migraines as they never happen at convenient times!”
While medications that target migraine headaches are available, Dr. Sellman advises that migraine suffers speak to a physician, as migraines affect each sufferer differently. “It is reasonable to see a doctor to confirm this diagnosis and make sure the headache disorder is not due to some other cause.
Migraine headaches can be prevented with medication. Medication to prevent migraines works very well for the majority of patients. These medications need to be prescribed by a physician.
A physical examination is necessary before a prescription could be given and follow up monitoring for complications is necessary. A newer treatment that is having some success in preventing migraine is Botox injections,” advises Sellman.
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While Sellman points out that medication used to prevent migraines is usually reported to be effective, he also suggests that lifestyle changes be made to prevent migraines.
“Migraine headaches can be prevented in part by a healthy lifestyle. Patients should be encouraged to eat small frequent meals to avoid hunger.
Personal stress should be reduced as much as possible. Lack of sleep can cause a headache disorder to worsen. A frequently underappreciated cause can be too much sleep. Therefore do not sleep 10 hours on a weekend if headaches are a problem,” he says.
Migraines can be triggered by a variety of conditions and situations and are generally acknowledged to be similarly unpredictable in their affect on individuals.
One fact that migraine suffers (and anyone who has experienced the effects of debilitating physical pain) do acknowledge is the significant limitations these headaches place on day to day life.
Barbara Kasoff, President and CEO of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), speaks to the stresses caused by migraine headaches and the facts that individuals who experience migraines (especially women) have to deal with as a part of everyday life.
“Migraines affect women in a much greater proportion, and while, incapacitating to all, the ripple effect is much more dramatic for them. When a migraine strikes a woman, unfortunately way too frequently her obligations can't just be put ‘on hold.’ Family obligations continue on – children still need to get to that important soccer game and snack and dinner are a must for them; days off at work are precious and, if a business owner, responsibility to staff and payroll are always top of mind. Migraines are often difficult to ‘power through’ and the frequent result is added stress to family and business life. As is the case with many medical issues, more funding needs to go to research.”
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Danielle Miller is a freelance writer and editor from the Boston area. She is a publishing project manager and has written articles on health and relationship-related topics for various outlets for several years. She is also a book editor, working mainly on books relating to science, technology, and user experience.