Head Case? No Way

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Sometimes I wake with migraine headaches so many days in a row that I dread going to sleep at night for fear of what the morning will bring. And sometimes when I get a real zinger, my prayer is for someone to take a mallet to my head, knock me out, and wake me when it’s over.

To those who do not suffer from migraines, this probably sounds like way too much drama. To sufferers – more than 26 million in the United States according to the American Medical Association – it probably sounds like understatement. Lucky us. We join the ranks of Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Virginia Wolfe, Lewis Carroll, Mary Todd Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and beloved American President John F. Kennedy just to name a few.

Almost as bad as having migraines is having them pooh-poohed. One study revealed that almost 45 percent of sufferers feel that nobody understands how painful their attacks are (International Migraine Lifestyle Impact Study, ACC International Limited, 1997, http://www.migrainementors.com/tips2.asp. People think it’s literally, all in your head.

When my kids were little, there did not yet exist any of the current wonder drugs that can knock out a migraine headache. The only relief came from a trip to the emergency room for Compazine to quell the nausea and phenol barb to calm the nerves enough to allow sleep. The first time I went to the ER, before they gave me the medication they made me consult with a psychiatrist. Sure. Let’s make sure she’s not whacko.

I have gone to chiropractors, tried traction at the physical therapists and treated myself to massages. I bought little buckwheat pillows to keep in the freezer to sooth an aching head, memory foam pillows, curved pillow, firm pillows and mushy pillows. I have done relaxation exercises, meditation, and eliminated every trigger food under the sun.

Today, fortunately, there are new drugs that work and, after a century of society and the medical community blaming migraines on their sufferers, advanced technology and the age of information started putting a halt to that.

Dr. Joel R. Saper, M.D., F.A.C.P., Director, Michigan Head-Pain & Neurological Institute, said, “There is no condition of such magnitude that is as shrouded in myth, misinformation, and mistreatment as is this condition [Migraine], and there are few conditions which are as disabling during the acute attack.”

Migraine is, in fact, a genetically-based disease. According to Dr. Stephen J. Peroutka, M.D., Ph.D., President & CEO of Spectra Biomedical, Inc., a group of research physicians dedicated to understanding the genetic basis of migraine and other illnesses, the “data are unequivocal: Migraine is a genetically-based illness. Individuals with a single parent having migraine have approximately a 50% chance of having migraine. This susceptibility is neither psychological nor induced by environmental causes.” Thank you, kind doctors.

As every member of the migraine club knows, there are triggers that can be avoided and others that cannot.

· Pre-menstrual hormone changes. Killer. Today, though, certain B vitamins and other medicines are suggested just for this time. Do not suffer silently. Ask your doctor.

· The weather. Forget it. No way to control it. A recent study entitled “The Effects of Weather on the Frequency and Severity of Migraine Headaches” conducted in Canada concluded that a drop in barometric pressure, the passing of a warm front, high temperature and humidity and oftentimes rain, is closely associated with higher frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Weirdly, and I could not make this up, wind from the southeast was shown to be associated with more attacks than wind from any other direction!

· Controllable triggers, on the other hand, include bright light, chemical smells, second-hand smoke, particular alcohols such as red wine and some hard alcohols such as scotch, foods that are known vasodilator such as fish, some chocolate, aged cheese, and foods which contain nitrates and/or the radical vasodilator MSG. Anecdotally, both my sister and I concur that lack of sleep is a definitive trigger; getting into bed early, routinely, helps keep migraines in check. Exercise, too, reduces migraine frequency and so does relaxation time (ha ha ha ha).

The good news is that it is truly vindicating to be able to tell people, “See. This is something real. I am not just being a wimp,” and better yet, that unlike my younger self who had to cope with headaches that often lasted 12 hours or more, today there is a pill to pop. I don’t go anywhere without it.

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