Migraines: the painful truth

As a migraine sufferer, I’ve heard it all. “You must be okay now, it’s been two hours. Try a walk in the fresh air. Women are such frail creatures.”

That last one is likely to get YOU hospitalised.

Some folk inherit sparkly eyes, wavy hair or elegant hands from their parents. In my case, I inherited a tendency to have migraines from my mum. Along with some good stuff, too…

Woman with intense painful migraineMost of the women and a few of the men in my mum’s line have migraines of the kind that can put you out of action for up to 72 hours.

We experience severe pain, usually only on one side of the head – in fact the word migraine comes from the Greek for ‘half of the head’ – sometimes with nausea and vomiting.

The pain is usually preceded by odd visual disturbances, in my case, a strange dancing pattern of zig-zag lines that march across my vision from one side to the middle, then recede again.

Sometimes parts of the face or body go numb or get pins and needles and we often find that we have to go into a darkened room because we can’t cope with light. Once the main pain has gone, the attack leaves a sensation a bit like a hangover, though this can last for several days.

Not everyone gets the ‘classic’ migraine with the visuals or the tingles, now called ‘migraine with aura’ by medics.

Some only get the headache, others can have even more severe symptoms, including extreme dizziness and even passing out.

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Having the first migraine can be frightening, especially with visual disturbance or numbness, and for those who are older when they have their first attack.

I was lucky (?) enough to have mine as a child at school where one of the staff realised what was happening and talked me through it. In some child sufferers though, strangely, migraines can first appear as stomach ache. As they get older, these then change to migraine headaches – we think this happened to my eldest son.

In our line, the headaches are often related to certain foods, though everyone has different triggers – some having problems with red wine, others with chocolate and, in my case, ordinary bread yeast, coffee, large amounts of chilli and MSG seem to be the worst offenders.

It can make a meal out seem like playing Russian roulette!

Other common triggers seem to be certain light conditions, dips in blood sugar and monthly hormonal changes.

We may also find the attacks can be stress-related, sadly often getting them once the stress is lifted. This means we sometimes lose whole weekends at times when we desperately need to relax, or even have the first few days of our holidays ruined.

I’m told medication has improved since I started trying it as a teen, when nothing agreed with me. Having said that, I find very little helps unless I can take something the second I feel a migraine aura starting.

I’m lucky enough to have attacks fairly infrequently, having worked out which triggers to avoid, so I’m not keen to take medication all the time as a preventative.

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I take an antihistamine if I think I’ve eaten anything that’s a trigger food, which helps a lot, but it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you’ve eaten.

Unfortunately the attacks themselves have become more severe, with a day’s sickness adding to the ‘fun’. Fortunately I have generations of advice to turn to, so on my great aunt’s suggestion, I’ve started taking two balls of stem ginger each morning. This is supposed to help and tastes amazing mixed into yoghurt and muesli. It feels like it’s working, but I’ve only been doing this for three months, so it’s a bit early to say for sure.

My mum reports that she stopped getting migraines once she was through the menopause, and I’m counting on that. The minute I’m sure it’s finished, you’ll find me hunched over a double espresso and a chocolate croissant!

Self-help ideas during a migraine from our family experience

Keep a diary of when you have a migraine to identify trigger foods or conditions. That’s how I found I needed to avoid MSG.

Taking an antihistamine helps some sufferers.

Try ginger. Slice a big chunk into a mug and steep in hot water, sweetening to taste, or eat some crystallised ginger.

Massage your pressure points. Try pressing on the centre of the eyebrow ridge where you’ll feel a slight dimple – bear in mind this only helps while you are doing it. Also try rubbing where the neck muscles link to the base of the skull.

Cold or hot packs on the head help some people – even putting your hands in hot or cold water makes a difference for some.

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Avoid lie-ins. Having a sleep binge sometimes leads to a migraine.

Whisper this oneorgasm can help get rid of a migraine for some of us – though it can be hard to get in the mood!

Migraine: the facts and figures

  • One in seven people in the UK population are migraine sufferers
  • Botox is now being offered to some people to treat migraine
  • 2% of five year olds and 18% of 13-14 year olds get migraines
  • Two thirds of migraine sufferers are women
  • Sufferers are most likely to experience more attacks between age 20-50
  • Around 60% of sufferers never consult their GP

Things not to say to a migraine sufferer (please!)

“Oh, when I get a migraine, I take an aspirin and it just goes away.”

It’s probably not a migraine then.

“If you have a healthy lifestyle you won’t get headaches.”

Not true.

“You must be ok now, it’s been two hours!”

They can last 72 hours.

“You just need to have a walk in the fresh air.”

Not when we can’t stand the light and are too dizzy to stand.

So there are some ways of managing your migraines, and for those of you without the wealth of women’s wisdom that was available to me, you can get help from some excellent support organisations.

Find out more…

About Tracey Lloyd

I’m an environmental educator in Nottingham with a wonderful community allotment to play in, called Windmill Community Gardens. I teach people how to grow, cook, eat and preserve their food in low energy and low cost ways, as well as having a lot of fun making useful and beautiful things with junk. My lovely husband and kids just about tolerate my tendency to hoard waste items for future projects! Photo by Jonathan Cherry.