Living with Migraine — Help or Get Out of the Way

A guide to helping migraine sufferers live with the incurable neurological disease affecting 12% of the worldwide population

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, an estimated one billion people worldwide are affected by migraines. You probably know one of us.

We are not weak. We may be absent from life as you know it, but we are fighting to return.

We all have crosses to bear and struggles to overcome. Know that we are well armed with the determination to fight the monster residing in our brains and the knowledge to retrieve our stolen lives.

Friends and family are not obligated to extend a helping hand. Do not, however, stand in our way.

I’m one of the lucky ones, averaging only one or two migraines a month. Nevertheless, catching the gaze of unsympathetic, judgmental eyes is as devastating as the time lost forever to this debilitating illness.

“When I have a headache, I take aspirin and keep working. Why can’t you?”

“Calling in sick when you aren’t sick is abusing the company policy.”

Co-workers and bosses have accused me of being weak and unethical. I am neither.

I have labored with the pain, the quality of my work suffering alongside my body. Four ibuprofen at a time dulling the pain just enough until I could drive home to an injection of blissful relief.

“You should try not to be so stressed out.”

“If you didn’t think about it so much, maybe you wouldn’t have so many headaches.”

I have tried to educate those making such misinformed statements of ignorance. Too often their ears have preferred fiction over fact.

I have retreated deeper inside the true me encapsulated by the false image they have chosen to see. Judgments were made, opportunities were missed, friendships were lost, and my battle raged on.

My own ignorance of migraine once prevented me from defending myself against workplace injustice. My lack of understanding needlessly prolonged my suffering and stole time from my life.

Knowledge is the most powerful weapon to wield against this incurable imbalance of brain chemicals.

Knowledge is my means to control the beast living silently inside my head, waiting to be triggered once again.

Knowledge is your pathway to becoming less hurtful to the migraine sufferers in your life.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Let Me Show You the Way

Though a headache is often a symptom of a migraine episode, a migraine is not simply a headache. A migraine is a recurrent episodic neurological disorder in the same class of illness as epilepsy.

Migraine is a biological event, not a psychological event. I cannot think myself into or out of a migraine episode.

Let’s repeat this part, for extra emphasis. I cannot think myself into or out of a migraine episode.

The Four Phases of Migraine

The migraine episode opens with the Premonitory Stage lasting from 1–24 hours. Symptoms include fatigue, food cravings, difficulty sleeping, excessive yawning, and sensitivity to light and sound.

  • When a migraine sufferer mentions sensitivity to light and sound, we are not referring only to sensitivity to bright lights or loud sounds. Ordinary house lamps and everyday sunshine through a window become intensely bright during a migraine episode. Normal conversation voices and average sound volume become amplified inside our heads.
  • Normal lights and sounds are painful. Bright lights and loud sounds are excruciatingly painful, piercing through the head and releasing a crippling wave of nausea through the body.

The Aura Stage can be next but is not experienced by all migraineurs. The duration is from 5–60 minutes and involves neurological symptoms such as seeing spots and zigzag lines, experiencing speech, hearing and vision impairment, and feeling numbness, tingling, weakness and dizziness.

Symptoms more noticeable to the outside world will appear during the 4–72 hours of the Main Attack Stage. Headache, usually on one side of the head or centered on an eye, is the most commonly known symptom. Other symptoms include nasal congestion, nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound and smell.

Following the departure of the main attack, the Postdrome Stage can persist for hours or days leaving one feeling hungover and depressed, experiencing fatigue and concentration problems.

How It Begins

Episode triggers vary from individual to individual much like allergens to allergy sufferers. Just because some people are allergic to peanuts doesn’t mean all allergy sufferers are allergic to peanuts.

Let’s say you learned your Aunt Betty’s migraines are triggered by chocolate and then you see me eating chocolate. Jumping to the conclusion that my condition must be misdiagnosed due to my ability to eat chocolate is erroneous.

You do not know more about my migraine triggers than I do. I’ve had over fifty years to figure out my triggers and chocolate is not among them.

FYI, my main triggers are changes in eating patterns, cigarette smoke, flashing light, certain barometric conditions, red wine and hormonal fluctuations. Even small exposure to any one of these items can be enough to trigger the onset of an episode.

Minor triggers for me are raisins, bananas, intense exercise, powdery perfumes and strong air fresheners. These items may not trigger an episode by themselves or if exposure is brief.

  • A special note to cigarette smokers: First off, you can quit because you are smarter and stronger than you think. We’ll talk about this later in a different article. For now, do not invite me to ride in your car or come to your house. Do not sit or stand next to me when you smell like an ashtray. Dousing your body in perfume or your house in air fresheners does not eliminate the triggering toxins, it only adds more offensive smells to the assault. And lastly, this is Kansas; pay attention to the wind. Your cancer cloud doesn’t stay inside a bubble around you. It is not a possibility that your bad habit will harm me someday, it is a certainty that you will harm me today.
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

How It Ends

Episode frequency and intensity is dynamic, evolving with hormones and life stages. Occurrences typically increase after puberty and decrease after menopause but are unlikely to disappear entirely.

No matter what the internet or social media tells you, there is NO magical cure for migraine. Control of the illness is achieved by developing a plan for preventative and remedial care.

Daily management based on scientific knowledge is the best defense in battling with this disease. Limiting exposure to triggers is the most effective means of prevention.

Maintaining a consistent daily schedule for eating, sleeping and exercising is an important component of a prevention plan. My disciplined lifestyle exists not because I am uptight, inflexible and obstinate; regimentation is the framework for my defensive strategy.

Triptan medications are nothing short of a miracle in shutting down an attack in progress. My personal arsenal includes triptan pills which work best if taken at the earliest noticeable symptoms and subcutaneous injections for the more advanced episodes.

I am not weak. I am well armed with the knowledge and determination to defend against migraine’s attempt to control my life.

Friends and family are not obligated to extend a helping hand. I can and will and must fight on my own.

One thing though. If you chose to recuse yourself from the battle, don’t stand in my way.

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Ex-accountant, lifetime cat lover and avid wearer of hats. Exploring a creative path during the second half of my existence.

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