Migraine: Headache from Hell


Feature Story

By Henrylito Tacio


“And then a throb hits you on the left ide of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right… There’s no way that came from inside your head, you think. That’s no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the face.” – Andrew Levy, A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diary

JESSICA was still a teenager when she experienced her first excruciating attack. “I was listening to the lecture of our teacher,” she recalls, “and I suddenly developed these agonizing pains in my head. I’d never felt anything like them before. The pain was overwhelming.”

The initial diagnosis – tension headache owing to too much study – didn’t seem right. Attacks kept recurring, up to 30 in a year, sometimes lasting for two days with nausea and vomiting. Finally, her doctor confirmed what Jessica and her family suspected: she was a victim of migraine.

Migraines are part of the vascular headache family and most often strike women. In fact, seventy percent of migraine sufferers are female. But males are not spared; Julius Caesar, Sigmund Freud, and Peter the Great are some of the famous male sufferers of migraines.

Migraine affects one in ten people worldwide, according to studies. In fact, migraine has been found to be one of the top 10 causes, globally, or years lived with disability with a 15.3 percent increase in prevalence between 2005 and 2015.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in the United Kingdom alone, some 25 million working-or school-days are lost every year because of migraine. Ninety percent of people report they cannot work or function with a migraine, according to Migraine Research Foundation.

Migraine has been around for more than 2000 years. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was familiar with its symptoms. However, it was Greek physician Galen who called it “hemicrania,” which, loosely translated, means half a head. It alludes to the fact that a migraine typically affects only one side of the face, usually around the eye. The pain is often described as throbbing or pulsating.

“For some people, a warning symptom known as an aura occurs before or with the headache,” the Mayo Clinic says. “An aura can include visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots, or other disturbances, such as tingling on one side of the face or in an arm or leg and difficulty speaking.”

The symptoms vary from person to person and individuals may have different symptoms during different attacks. “The attacks may differ in length and frequency,” explains the migrainetrust.org. “Migraine attacks usually last from 7 to 72 hours and most people are free from symptoms between attacks.”

Migraines attacks can be terrifying. Elizabeth thought she was losing her sight when her first migraine struck at the age of 15. “I was reading a book when a pinpoint of light appeared, growing in size over the next 40 minutes until I could no longer see. The light was still there when I closed my eyes. I was petrified,” she remembers.

Until now, medical science doesn’t know what causes migraine but doctors say migraines have something to do with the blood vessels in our head. Triggers also include certain foods, stress, light and even perfumes or other odors.

Most doctors prescribe medications to relieve migraines. A combination of aspirin and the anti-nausea drug metoclopramide has proven to be effective. The new “triptan” drugs work by mimicking serotonin (a substance found naturally in the brain). “I consider triptans breakthrough medications,” says American neurologist Dr J.D. Bartleson. “They reverse the nausea as well as the pain, and they’re not habit-forming or sedating.”

Despite this, some doctors don’t prescribe drug as it can produce distressing symptoms of its own. The Doctors Book of Home Remedies II shared some ways on how migraines can be controlled:

Sleep migraine off. “Generally, the best treatment is to sleep,” says Dr. Glen Solomon, a headache specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “Relief comes from falling asleep – even if it’s for a short time.”

Dr. Solomon warns, however, that napping can trigger other types of headaches. So, if you’re susceptible to other headaches besides migraines, the best policy is to get on a regular sleeping schedule rather than taking catnaps.

Don’t mingle with people. “I want to be alone,” Swedish actress Greta Garbo once said. That’s not a bad idea – if a migraine attacks you. Migraine pain is very easily aggravated by physical activity – even something as mild as walking or bending over. “When migraines strike, most people want to crawl into a dark corner and be left alone,” says Dr. Robert Kunkel, staff physician of the Headache Center of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Ice your head. It has long been theorized that a migraine occurs when blood vessels in the brain rapidly constrict and then dilate. “A cold pack can make the blood vessels constrict again,” explains Dr. Michael Gallagher, director of the University Headache Center in Stratford.

He suggests that you try wrapping some ice or a ready-made pack – the kind that wraps around your neck and the back of your head – in a towel and applying it to your neck and head. “During an attack, you can leave the pack on for an extended period of time,” he says.

Be careful what you put into your mouth. In other words, avoid migraine triggers. Here are common triggers that you should watch out for: tyramine (found in cheese, chicken livers, and sour cream), phenylethylamine (found mainly in chocolates), nitrates (these are added to meats as preservatives), lactose (found in milk and milk products), caffeine (found in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks), and aspartame (an artificial sweetener).

Pass on monosodium glutamate (MSG). “A large number of migraine patients are susceptible to MSG,” reports Dr. Seymour Diamond, author of The Hormone Headache. “They develop headaches within 15-30 minutes after eating a food flavored with just a small amount of MSG.”

Eat on time and eschew alcohol. “Maintaining a regular diet is very important,” says Dr. Gallagher. “Migraines are associated with blood vessel changes, and these changes happen much more readily when your blood sugar level shifts.” As for alcohol? “Forget alcohol – especially red wine – since it can provoke an attack,” says Dr. Diamond.

Munch on magnesium, if possible. Some studies have shown that migraine sufferers have a shortage of magnesium in their brains. “Magnesium is a muscle relaxer, and it can help those with migraines,” believes Dr. Allan Magaziner, a physician who specializes in nutritional therapy and preventive medicine. Good sources of magnesium include dark green, leafy vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Do something. Doctors have long known that exercise is a great way to reduce the stress that often triggers migraines in some people. But now there’s research suggesting that cardiovascular fitness may also help lessen migraines – no matter what the cause.

Research psychologists at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada report that the severity of migraines decreases as cardiovascular fitness increases. “Regular exercise is a great idea for anyone who has migraines,” agrees Dr. Diamond. But he warns: Exercise during an attack can make it worse.

No one method works for everyone, by the way. One doctor offers this advice for anyone considering alternative therapy: “Discuss it with your doctor first – it is most important that your condition be properly diagnosed to rule out any other serious problems – then try only one method at a time.”

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