Migraine - "No It's Not Just a Headache!" - Symptoms - Treatment - Medication
The Early Days
My experience of migraine started as a child. I recall sitting down at my desk in school and having this pounding pain over my left eye. My stomach felt sick and I wanted to vomit. A sympathetic teacher drove me home and I found relief by holding my head close to an electric fire. This would be a recurrent event as I grew up – the headache – the awfully sick stomach and then longing to find somewhere to just lie down in the dark and be undisturbed until the attack was over. This was followed by a sense of euphoria at being well again.
What is a Headache or a Migraine?
Non migraine sufferers don’t understand the suffering which the victims of the condition undergo. The attitude is often “it’s only a headache” but this is far from the case. Migraine sufferers often think that their head is going to explode.
Is it a Migraine?
Migraine is a neurological disorder. It is thought to be caused by the release of inflammatory hormones into the blood stream and this in addition to dilating blood vessels in the lining of the brain, causes the symptoms of pain. Migraine differs from milder headaches in terms of the intensity of pain and the duration of the attack. Often the headache is one sided, throbbing and located above the eye. It can also produce visual symptoms or aura and may cause violent nausea which obviously makes treatment by oral painkillers difficult.
What Are Migraine Triggers?
A multitude of trigger factors can spark off a migraine. Everyone is different and any specific trigger may effect one person and have no effect on someone else.
Typical triggers are:
- Food: Cheese, chocolate or red wine
- Too much sleep
- Too little sleep
- Going without meals for too long
- Lack of sleep
- Excessively hot environments
- Perfumes (This includes natural perfumes from e.g. roses
- Smoke form cigarettes, solid fuel fires etc
Personally I have found that what I call hyper-stimulation will normally give me an attack. Take for instance the case where you travel to the city on a shopping trip. You enter a department store and are bombarded by bright lights, people talking and bumping into you, the colors of all the products on display, the smell of perfumes and the heat inside the building. This is the sort of stuff which would "do your head in". For a migraine sufferer, this is sort of literally true!
My Experience of Treatment
When I was young my migraines were infrequent and they were treated with aspirin. As I reached my 20s and 30s they became more severe and occurred more frequently. I found relief by taking an over the counter medication called Syndol. This contains paracetamol plus codeine and an ingredient called doxylamine succinate. The latter ingredient is an antihistamine/ sedative / muscle relaxant which is also found in sleeping tablets. It is very effective at reducing tension headaches and neck tension which can accompany migraine. It does tend to make you very sleepy and irritable though. Since the product also contains codeine you have to be very careful to avoid prolonged use as it can result in addiction. The triptans group of medication can halt an attack in its tracks but are rather expensive.These are available in inhaler form as nausea can prevent stomach absorption of medication. I then tried prophylactive or preventative treatment with beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and anti depressants but didn’t notice any improvement in my condition. Everyone is different though and these medications may be of benefit to some people.
Feverfew for Migraines - A Natural Treatment
A natural remedy which some people recommend is feverfew, a wild plant which has anti-inflammatory properties like aspirin. A few leaves of the plant can be taken per day or a safer option is to take feverfew tablets where the dose is known. I tried feverfew for about a month but can’t honestly say that it reduced the frequency or severity of my migraines.
Positive and Negative Feedback
You may have experienced audio feedback in a hall when the gain of the PA system is set too high. A screeching starts in the speakers and the volume increases rapidly to an unbearable level. This is known as positive feedback, caused by the sound from speakers being fed back through the microphone to the amplifier. This fed back signal gets amplified, reinforces the sound from the speakers and gets fed back, again and again, resulting in the high pitched whistle. In physics and control theory, the system is described as having become "unstable". The same thing happens when you are learning to ride a bike, you start over steering and then wobble from side to side and fall off!
I reckon the progression of a migraine attack is analogous to what I described above. When you get a headache, your forehead tenses up, you experience the pain and perhaps nausea. All these symptoms cause stress and anxiety and you think "Oh, My , God!, How am I going to get through this?" - (Especially if you are at work!). This leads to more tensing up, increased blood flow in the forehead and brain and more pain, which causes you to be more anxious - So the symptoms snowball until they reach a climax.
So what if we could turn this positive, reinforcing feedback into negative feedback? Its easier said than done, but what this involves is trying to become more relaxed, both mind and body, as the pain increases. This slows down your heart rate and blood flow and counteracts the "anger" in the forehead and brain. It doesn't always work, but the next time you have a migraine and are at home, don't take pills but try this technique and see if it works. It mightn't stop the attack but can slow its progress.
Now I’m in my forties and the migraines have tended to become less frequent and progress more slowly. It is imperative to take medication as soon as there is an inkling of an impending attack as vomiting is almost as distressing as the migraine head pain itself.
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