Understanding migraines


Cate Krueger

One winter years ago at my grandparent’s house, I woke up early in the morning and stumbled downstairs to use the bathroom. Suddenly I felt myself start to overheat, and my vision clouded over with white and gray. A desperate pounding in my head drove me to strip off my pajamas as I followed the wall to the bathroom. When I arrived, I leaned my head against the toilet to try to ease the pain. My efforts were in vain. In a haze, I wandered back to the foot of the stairs and curled loosely into a ball. I was afraid, but I lay there quietly, and within ten minutes the nausea and flashing vision had passed. I slunk back up to bed and didn’t mention it.

     That’s the only migraine I’ve experienced, and I rarely think back on it. I’m lucky. I have friends and teachers who suffer from frequent migraines. Why do migraines happen? How do people deal with them? What can friends do to help? Here’s what Jr. Maddison Allen, a West Ottawa student and migraine sufferer, has to say.

“There’s a lot of misconception of what a migraine is, because some people are like ‘Oh, it’s just a normal headache.’ A lot of people don’t actually know what it is and what it feels like.”

  Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world and affect 39 million in the U.S. and one billion worldwide. Nearly 25% of U.S. households include someone who suffers from migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Despite their prevalence, many people don’t understand migraines, other than as a type of headache that occasionally takes a friend out of commission for a few hours.

“It’s a headache behind the eyes, so when I get them usually the world turns dizzy, or I’ll see multiple of objects. Sometimes I’ll see flashes of light,” Allen said.

  The easiest migraines to identify are Complicated Migraines, which include the stage known as aura. The American Migraine Foundation describes aura as “a series of sensory and visual changes that can range from seeing black dots and zig zags to tingling numbness on one side of the body, or an inability to speak clearly” that occurs shortly before or during a migraine. These “flashes of light” give clear warning that a migraine is coming fast.

  Common Migraines, or migraines without aura, are harder to diagnose as they are more similar to other kinds of headaches. Sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, and pulsing pain, usually on one side of the head, are all Common Migraine symptoms according to the Mayo Clinic. The pain from a migraine, with or without aura, can make normal activity impossible.

  Rarely, migraines occur without head pain. In this type of migraine, the sufferer experiences symptoms distinct to a migraine, such as aura and nausea, without the addition of head pain. Any typical migraine trigger can cause them, assuming a person knows their triggers.

“Some people will be like ‘oh, it’s caused by chocolate’ or something. The doctors think for me that either it could be from nitrates in preservatives, or a lack of sleep, or being out in the sun too long, so we’re not really sure,” Allen said.

  Researchers don’t yet fully understand the causes of migraines, but both genetic and environmental factors can play a role. Family history is a good indicator of tendency towards migraines, but those who suffer from migraines each have their own list of triggers.

  Certain salty or processed foods and food additives, as well as not eating enough, can trigger migraines. Consuming alcohol and caffeine can also have an effect, as can withdrawal. Stress, bright lights, loud sounds, strong smells, physical exertion, changes in air pressure or sleep pattern, certain medications – the list of possible triggers is long. Many sufferers keep notes about what may have triggered their migraines, searching for a pattern that explains their condition.

  One of the most predictable causes of migraines is hormonal shifts. Three times more women than men experience migraines, often near the beginning of menstruation. Pregnancy, menopause, and birth control pills increase the number of migraines some women experience and decrease the number in others.

  Triggers can be difficult to identify even after many migraines, but before someone can begin to understand what triggers their migraines, they need to have one for the first time.

“A couple of summers ago, when I was going into eighth grade, I went to a pool with my cousins, and it was really hot that day, so we think that maybe it was triggered by the heat. All of a sudden it hit me, and all I could do was sit down. My mom wasn’t really understanding what was happening, so she was like, ‘Oh, you’re just faking it ‘cause you wanna go home,’ and I was like, ‘No…,’” Allen said.

  Migraines are internal, so they aren’t always obvious to people outside the sufferer; however, people around those suffering have the power to help or hurt. Someone experiencing their first migraine often can’t properly articulate the problem, and even a chronic sufferer relies on other people for accommodations.

     If incapacitating head pain suddenly hits someone or someone says they feel a migraine coming on, trust them and do what they need. Help them to a dark, quiet place, offer over-the-counter pain meds and liquids, and listen to what they say will help.

“I took some ibuprofen, but usually it doesn’t help. I just need to go into a dark room and sleep. So I just waited it out, and it was basically three hours of this horrible pain in my head. But I did go to sleep eventually, and then it went away,” Allen said.

“There is no cure for migraines,” Medline’s website says. “Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks.” Resting in a dark, quiet room, a cool cloth on the forehead, and fluids are effective in easing migraines, along with some pain medications. “The sooner you take the medicine, the more effective it is,” according to Medline.

“First, [the doctor] gave me this migraine medicine that my dad would take when he got them, but it didn’t do anything at all. So they switched me to another brand that works for more people, and it still didn’t work for me. So I’m taking Excedrin now, which has caffeine and stuff in it. I haven’t gotten [a migraine] any time lately to actually try it, but they do help with normal headaches, so maybe they’ll work when I get a migraine,” Allen said.

  Medications exist to relieve migraine symptoms, but four million adults in the US experience chronic daily migraine: fifteen or more migraine days each month. Sometimes medication isn’t effective. According to the Mayo Clinic, when sufferers do find an option that works, taking too much can lead to resistance and make future migraines more painful. Alternatively, sufferers can get medication-overuse headaches or abdominal problems. A long-term goal for most sufferers is to figure out what make their migraines less frequent.

  Medline suggests hormone therapy for those whose migraines seem linked to their menstrual cycle, stress management strategies like relaxation techniques and biofeedback, and keeping a log of possible triggers.

  The Mayo Clinic recommends a consistent routine for meals and sleep, aerobic exercise, and reducing estrogen intake. If these techniques don’t help, Medline suggests vitamin and mineral supplements.

  However, these methods take time to work, and sufferers deal with their migraines in the meantime.

“Usually they happen at the worst time possible in the school day. I got a lot last year, so as soon as my vision would start to flash I’d have to try to get ahold of my mom, who was at work, and have her try to arrange for her or my papi or my grandma to get me and take me home. Then I just turn off all the lights and sleep for like five hours.”

  Allen understood the warning signs for her migraines and had support from her teachers and family members, who helped her recover from each incident and catch up on work she missed. Her migraines became routine enough that she knew what to do, but that doesn’t mean  each one didn’t truly and individually feel terrible.

“I was at a Christmas party with all of my cousins, and we were supposed to do this thing for my grandma, a recording of the song “So Happy Together.” I love that song so I was super excited, but all of a sudden it just hit me, so I had to go down to the basement and lay on one of their old couches and sleep while everyone did that.”

  Migraines cause sufferers to miss out on their lives: sometimes a day of class or work, sometimes a pool party, sometimes a movie with friends or a nice meal with family. Whatever the case, life can’t be put on hold. So be there for migraine sufferers; help them find a place to rest, get them some water, and try not to make too much noise. Mostly though, try not to let them feel guilty or angry about the things they miss.