Migraines: What They Are and How to Deal

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It feels like your head is being split in half with an axe, like you are going blind, like any smell, noise, light will push you over the edge. You don’t know whether to seek hot, cold, touch from others, or whether you can manage to keep medication down, and you can’t cry because it makes the pain worse and you want to vomit. At the back your mind you worry that this time it might not be a migraine, but something that’s actually going to kill you.  – Ali Knapp

 

For the record, I am not a doctor or other certified professional, just a migraine sufferer like you who has found the best treatments for me. If you suffer from chronic migraines, please see a healthcare professional.

The above quote describes the past couple days perfectly. Migraines are not just another headache. They are the worst pain imaginable and can make you lose your mind. The pain is like no other, and I seriously wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Okay, maybe, I would if I knew of a really nasty person. With a normal headache, you take two Tylenol or have a cup of coffee and you’re all better. Not so with a migraine. They are some sort of demon-spawn that doesn’t react to normal treatment. You just have to let it have its way and let it pass. It’s very violating of your personal liberties, let me tell ya.

Symptoms of a migraine include:

  • Recurrent headaches that last 4-72 hours. Yes, 72 hours of non-stop, excruciating pain.
  • Throbbing pain on one side of your head. It feels like an ice pick in or near your temple, and then gradually spreads all over that side of your head, down your neck, and into your back.
  • Visual disturbances. I don’t always see an aura, but it’s not uncommon. If I’m pain attention I can usually tell  before the pain starts because my vision is blurry despite my super-strength contacts and any light source has a halo.
  • Nausea and vomiting. You’re going to encounter this one, but whether it’s an actual symptom or just comes from the severe pain has yet to be determined. Just count on it happening.
  • Anxiety. This is a pretty rough symptom for someone who already suffers from anxiety, since a panic attack can actually trigger a migraine. If that’s what triggered it, it can quickly turn into a vicious cycle that lasts for DAYS. Why do you get anxiety with a migraine? Because at some point you honestly wonder if you’re going to make it through.
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. This is a pretty common symptom that most people report. You suddenly want to wear your sunglasses indoors at night, wear noise cancelling headphones, and put a clothespin over your nose. You are hyper-sensitive to everything, including touch.
  • Neck pain or stiffness. Pain makes you tense your muscles, and you end up in some weird positions trying to find a comfortable one, so it’s not uncommon for the neck pain to prevail even after the migraine is gone.

Professionals aren’t sure exactly what causes migraines, though it could possibly be an imbalance in serotonin. This theory explains why people with anxiety and depression experience migraines more often. There are a lot of triggers, though.

  • Hormones. When a woman has her period, her progesterone is at its lowest, which can trigger a migraine in a heart beat. It’s really not fair.
  • Stress. What doesn’t stress cause? Stress is a big one, whether you’re a simple housewife or a big CEO of an international company. If you don’t have some sort of stress management in your life, it’s going to wreak havoc on your health in a number of different ways.
  • Food and drink sensitivities. These are tricky to determine unless you’re tracking your intake and migraine schedule, but common trigger foods include MSG, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, food dyes, dairy and cheese products, nitrates found in processed meats, and gluten.
  • Environmental. Some of these are pretty inescapable. Changes in weather affect your whether or not your indoors. Allergies, smoking, bright lights, loud sounds, perfumes, and pollution are all triggers, so if you’re prone to migraines a rave or dive bar might not be the best place to hang out on a Saturday night.
  • Lifestyle. Oof. How many of us actually get the recommended amount of sleep or water? Having an irregular sleep pattern, skipping meals, dehydration all lead to migraines along with many other health problems.

Looking back, the week preceding my migraine had enough black marks to create the perfect environment for one. I was on my period, I hadn’t been sleeping well, I’d skipped meals because I was too fatigued to want to eat, and supplementing the lack of energy with mass amounts of coffee. On top of that, I live in Central Georgia where we get the joy of experiencing almost every whether pattern known to man in the span of seven days. Joy. There was literally no escaping it, but I immediately set my plan of attack into motion…or should I say lack of motion.

  • Find the darkest, quietest place in your house. Plan to be there for a while. For me, it was the bedroom. I surrounded myself with soft blankets and pillows and made a comfy nest. Keeping the dogs quiet was a challenge, but fortunately they knew Mommy wasn’t feeling well and kept pretty quiet.
  • Wear loose, light clothing. This is the perfect excuse to keep those pajama pants that are 2 sizes too big and that t-shirt from your ex around. You want loose, breathable material. You’ll be going through alternate chills and hot flashes, so be as comfortable as possible.
  • Pain medication. My personal favorite is Excedrin. *Side note: There is literally no difference between Excedrin Extra Strength and Excedrin Migraine, or name brand and store brand except the label on the box and the price tag. It’s the perfect blend of aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and caffeine. Just don’t buy into their claim that it kills the pain in half an hour. It does work, but not that fast. Please talk to your healthcare provider if you are on any medications already, as it can interact.
  • Hot and/or cold. Some like it hot, some like it cold. Others, like me, like to alternate between the two. Whatever your choice, apply to the pained area for 15 minute intervals (15 on, 15 off).
  • Water. Try your best to keep hydrating. Between the sweating, the pain, and the vomiting, it can lead to dehydration and make things much worse. Personally, ice water makes it much worse for me, so I drink it at room temperature through a flexible straw so I don’t have to move.
  • Try to eat. Small, bland foods are your friends. They aren’t too harsh on your stomach and aren’t so bad if they come back up. I prefer oyster crackers or Goldfish since you don’t have to chew a lot, but club or saltine crackers are good too.
  • The bucket. You know the bucket. Or maybe yours is a bowl. It’s the one you grab on those kind of sick days where movement is just too much to bear to make it to the bathroom. Honestly, I know it’s gross to think about, but if you have to vomit, it’s a lot easier to lean off of the bed or couch into a bucket than to crawl to the bathroom.

So you’ve done all of the following and several hours have passed. The pain has subsided to a dull ache and the ice pick has been removed. Don’t get too excited. The next 24 hours are crucial to not getting another one. More than likely you’ll feel completely exhausted, like you’ve run a marathon or climbed Mount Everest. You’re weak, unable to concentrate, and extremely irritable. You’re probably also craving food, most likely junk food. Now you have to heal from the migraine. Everyone handles this phase differently. Some sleep it off. Others, like me, can’t just sleep it off, but we do quiet activities while allowing our bodies to rest.

  • Keep hydrating! This is super important. You really need to replenish the fluids you lost. While I do drink water to recover, I also supplement with hot tea. Chamomile is my go-to tea since it acts as a mild sedative and muscle relaxer. It really calms down your nervous system so your body can get some rest.
  • Eat. I crave junk food packed with carbs and protein after a migraine. Try to stay away from overly salty and sweet foods like chips and candy. My favorites are pizza and tacos.
  • Don’t be ashamed to wear sunglasses inside. At night.
  • Be understanding. Try to keep in mind that you’re extra irritable and things that wouldn’t normally bother you are going to bother you. A friend of ours was visiting for a couple days when I had my migraine and he ate my leftover pizza. I was enraged. Talk about irrational irritation. Okay, maybe some of it was rational (it is pizza, after all), but I still normally wouldn’t have gotten as upset as I did.
  • Rest. Unless you do yoga, exercising probably isn’t a good idea. If you absolutely must, go for a light jog instead of an all-out run.
  • Bathe. A hot shower can do wonders for you physically as well as restore some form of morale.
  • Avoid screens. Artificial light is the worst and can put a lot of strain on your already tired eyes. Limit your phone/computer/tablet time to the bare minimum.

Hopefully after all of this you’ll be feeling a little better. I’d also like to mention a couple of things I’ve read but have not tried. One is magnesium, which you can buy in capsule form in the vitamin aisle. Supposedly it helps in getting rid of the migraine. There are also a lot of people who make “migraine smoothies” filled with magnesium-rich foods. Not sure about you, but whoever turns on a blender during one of my migraines is going to experience a wrath worse than Carrie Underwood finding out her man cheated on her. Also, essential oils seem to be all the rage now. Personally, I don’t use them as I haven’t researched them enough to know if they actually work. I know some people who swear by them and others who think they’re a bunch of bologna. There are supposedly blends of oils that help to ease migraine suffering.

I hope that this knowledge helps you out with your next migraine. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m sure we’d all love to hear. I’d also love to hear from someone who has tried either magnesium or essential oils. I want to know your experience!

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