Most people don’t think of migraines as a disease. No, they think of them as merely a bad headache, brought on by stress, lifestyle habits, or perhaps even hypochondria. In reality, migraines are a true neurological disease. In fact, the World Health Organization has determined that a severe migraine can be as disabling as quadriplegia. Migraines kill more people every year than handguns do. Migraines are a serious health issue.
I suffer from migraines. I’ve suffered from migraines for more than 30 years. I was diagnosed as a very young child, which is in itself quite an anomaly. Even today, children are rarely believed by their doctors to be suffering from migraines (even though they can and do), but at the time, in the late 70s, it was simply unheard of.
My mom did not waste time taking me to a pediatrician. She took me to her own doctor, a man who had a great deal of personal experience treating migraines, and he recognized the signs in me quite clearly.
She’d had migraines. Her mother had migraines. Her sisters had migraines, and even my father and his mother had migraines. It really was inevitable that I, too, would develop them. I was eventually placed on an antihistamine as a preventative, and my life continued.
Migraines continued to disrupt my life, but they were reasonably under control. As I grew older, they entered a more established pattern. They spiked before my period, hitting harder and more frequently. They also loved to attack along with weather changes. I became quite effective at predicting rain.
I got a brief reprieve from migraines when I became pregnant (many women do). But they came back with a vengeance once I stopped having children and began using Depo Provera. My migraines were nearly daily, and my insurance would only cover a limited amount of rescue medications a month (9 pills total!). I finally went off Depo, but the migraines continued.
Though many advances in migraine medications have been made, migraneurs are still not treated well in the medical world. We are often treated as drug addicts, when we are simply seeking pain relief. We are treated as slackers when we are unable to attend work for what must seem like the umpteenth time that year, due to yet another migraine. Relationships suffer as we become tense and irritable from our chronic pain.
Nine pills a month. Because of the expense, that’s all my insurance company allows me to have. I use Treximet, which provides me with a significant amount of relief, as long as I only have a limited number of migraines. But when I have more than a few, I’m left to blunder through, using over the counter medications, which do precious little to blunt the throbbing, nauseating pain that spreads across the entire left side of my head.
It starts behind my left eye. Occasionally it begins at the back of my skull. But it always ends the same, with the entire left side of my skull feeling a searing, burning, throbbing pain stabbing through it over and over and over again. Lights flash through, sound throbs, movement of any kind causes my stomach to quake in revolt. It’s odd to think there are people who have never felt this, who have never had a migraine. I wonder what it’s like to live without migraines, to live without pain, without the constant fear of pain.
Sometimes I get a warning that the pain is coming. It can be a flashing, like the breaking of a mirror, a black and white shimmering crack, then I’m looking through a fish tank. But as often as not, I wake up with the migraine; it has struck without warning. I am doomed to spend my day in misery. My children and my husband are doomed to spend it with me.
I began to spend more and more time closeted in my home. I would double and triple check that I had my meds with me before leaving to go anywhere – even on short trips. I saved pain medicine I got for any other reason. If I had a tooth pulled or minor surgery, I’d grit my teeth and bear the pain like a trooper, because I’d need those Vicodin or that codeine later for migraines.
Yes, I knew I was not using medication appropriately, but desperation and pain combined to make risky behavior seem more logical. I didn’t abuse the medication, and I was not overdosing; I was simply hoarding the medication for later use, when I knew I’d need it far more.
I began to avoid family get-togethers, for fear the noise and activity would trigger a migraine. My migraines were so limiting my activity that I began to gain weight. I worried about the childhood my children were having: what enjoyment were they getting watching their mother laying on the couch in the dark, begging with them to just please, please be quiet?
In sheer desperation, I signed up for a drug trial, which opened new vistas of possibilities to me. After decades of suffering from disabling migraines, a doctor had finally told me about prophylactics. Though as a child, I’d actually been on a prophylactic (the antihistamine), I’d long since forgotten it, and I certainly was no longer taking it. I had not even been aware of taking it until I was perusing my records some time later.
I began taking an herbal supplement, then added propranolol (a beta blocker that can be used to prevent migraines), and finally Topamax (an anti-seizure medicine that has been shown to reduce migraines as well). I still have frequent migraines. They still disrupt my life with alarming regularity.
Because I began having migraines so early in life, I don’t know what I would have been like without them. They have certainly changed me. I should be a healthy, active 36-year-old woman. Instead, I am a 36-year-old woman who takes 3 pills every morning and every night simply to avoid having a headache. I have pills that stay in my purse no matter what, just in case. I have no other health problems, and for that I’m grateful.
The headaches have changed me, though. They’ve brought fear. I am very aware of my own mortality. Migraneurs have a higher risk of stroke, of coma, and even death than people who don’t have migraines. They have made me paranoid: I don’t want to be seen as a hypochondriac. I don’t want to be a burden.
And that’s what I feel like the most: a burden. I get so tired of the never-ending refrain, “I have a migraine.” It’s exhausting. Just as exhausting is the drained, worn-out feeling I get the day after a migraine, when the pain is gone, but my body is limp, tired, washed out.
I am no longer a slave to my rescue drugs. I am now able to go about my day without panicking because I’ve already used my ninth pill of the month. I can pop a couple ibuprofen if I feel a migraine coming on, and I am fine. I can take over the counter migraine medications, and they are usually effective. My migraines have not decreased in frequency, but they have greatly decreased in intensity.
If you or someone you love suffers from migraines, there is hope. There are both drug and non-drug options available that may help you prevent migraine attacks, and lifestyle changes to avoid triggers can help you reduce both the frequency and intensity of your attacks. It’s also very important to talk to a doctor for an accurate diagnosis of your head pain. An MRI or CT scan may be necessary to rule out other possible causes of your head pain. To learn more about migraines, visit migraines.org .