Sunday, February 27, 2011


I've suffered (and suffered is the correct term, believe me) from migraines for a very long time. I remember getting them from very early on in my teens. Back then, I labelled them my "sick headaches" to differentiate them from more normal pains in the head, because these "sick headaches" were so painful that I could do nothing more than crawl into bed, huddle into a foetal ball and cry in between bouts of vomiting.

To try and function was impossible. I had to darken the room because any chink of light hurt my eyes and made me feel nauseous. The smell of food made me gag and retch. Any sound was unbearable and the pain in my head was so agonising that I would sob. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that the pain would eventually end (thinking back, I note that was a very Buddhist attitude) and after the agony was gone, I'd be flooded with a sense of euphoria that lasted for hours.

One day on the train into work, I was reading a magazine and I stumbled upon an article that caught my eye. There was a picture of a woman (women migraine sufferers outnumber men 3 to 1) clutching the side of her head and a headline that mentioned something about Migraines. It was the first time I'd ever heard the word.

I read the article avidly and found myself identifying with what was being said. Could it be that I got Migraines? There was a checklist at the bottom of the page and I looked at the questions, ticking each box as I went down the list. At the end I had a perfect score. Go me. How typical.

But it explained a lot. The one sided headache, the funny visual disturbances, the way my words wouldn't come out right, the "Alice in Wonderland" feeling and the intense craving for chocolate I got before each migraine.

Each of those was a part of the prodrome and the aura stage of my migraines. These were the warning signs that my migraine was imminent. My poor body was wanting a fix of chocolate in a desperate attempt to get some caffeine into my system to constrict the dilated blood vessels in my head that were about to cause the pounding headache to come.

Even the word "headache" isn't the right term. Migraines are not headaches. They are a neurological disease, of which the headache is just a symptom. The big mistake people make is to assume that they only have the condition when they experience the headache, when in fact if you have migraine disorder, you have it ALL the time. It's misleading and incorrect to call it a migraine headache. When you experience the headache you are having a migraine episode or flare up, which is all a part of the recurrent neurological disorder.

It's been 25 years since I read that article and I'm still not migraine free. I've learnt a lot about my "sick headaches" in all that time. Due to imaging technology scientists have actually been able to see a migraineur's overly excitable neurons firing in waves across the brain, starting a cascade of events that even involve the brain stem as a migraine episode takes place.

I've learned that my only migraine trigger appears to be my hormones. Twice a month, regular as clockwork, ovulation and menstruation will set off the chain of events that cause my migraine flare-ups. Without preventers, my life is seriously crap and I spent at least two weeks out of each month in migraine-land. Which isn't fun at all.

The migraine preventers I've been on are pretty heavy duty too, and I'd love to live life without them, but I know from experience that would be as reckless as an epileptic living without medication to control their disorder. In the grip of the aura of a migraine I can hardly function as my poor brain goes into its "Alice in Wonderland" mode. I've even had Deb ask me if I'm having a stroke! I blurt out the wrong words, I can't understand what people are saying, my vision gets blurry...

And then the pain...

Believe me, I have experienced no pain greater than that of a migraine. I have given birth to four children, so I am qualified to say that. When I have a migraine flare-up, pain killers don't work. I've taken enough codeine to kill a largish elephant with absolutely no effect at all. The referred nerve pain from the episode gives me an earache, a toothache and an intense boring pain behind my eye.. and that's all separate to the throbbing pickaxe pain that's exploding in my temple. I have contemplated ending it all with suicide in those moments - but I was too damn sick from the vertigo caused by the room spinning to even sit up.

A migraine isn't like any headache a non-migraineur has ever experienced and the only way to overcome the, "it's just a headache, get over it" stigma out there is to educate people.

A migraine isn't a just a headache, it's a neurological disorder. So consider yourself educated and spread the word.

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