Dealing With and Understanding Migraine Headaches
I have suffered from migraines for about twenty years now. They are less frequent and of lower intensity than they were in my 30s, but I still dread them. Unfortunately, my daughter also occasionally has them. How much do they hurt? Well, I have gone through natural childbirth, surgery, wisdom tooth removal...I’d rate the migraines right below childbirth on the pain scale. They are severely painful. (See also: 9 Ways to Beat a Killer Headache)
I must preface any “home remedy advice” that I am giving here with this — if you are having severe headaches, you should see your doctor. Never assume you have figured out what you have from the internet. Make an appointment.
In fact, that was what I did after I had my first migraine. After a thorough examination, my doctor explained what a migraine was. My genes or environmental factors could be the cause, as could the trigeminal nerve (a pain pathway) and/or imbalances in serotonin levels. Interestingly, she also told me, “God isn’t punishing you.” That hadn’t occurred to me at all, but she explained that because the pain so severe, it is not uncommon for people to think that.
People who suffer from migraines talk about their “triggers.” Triggers are factors that they have found set off their migraines. Before I could figure out what my triggers were, I needed medication so that I could cope. My doctor prescribed Cafergot tablets, which were only somewhat effective. Later, I also had a prescription for Imitrex tablets, which were more effective. Unfortunately, Imitrex left me listless and groggy, so I was pretty worthless long after the headache was gone; and it was expensive, so I knew I had to figure out my triggers.
Basically, figuring out your triggers entails retracing your steps prior to the migraine. To prevent migraines, you need to know what factors contributed to them. I found that it helped to keep a “migraine journal” recording when I had one, what I had to eat or drink, how my stress level leading up to the episode was, whether I was on my period, and how much sleep I had gotten. If you share this information with your doctor, they can help you to connect the dots. Here are some common triggers:
- For women, your hormones. Fluctuations in estrogen can be a culprit.
- Sleep patterns
- Light. Bright or fluorescent lights can trigger migraines, as can “gray” weather.
- Chocolate (how sad is that?)
- Weather (changes in barometric pressure)
- Tannins in red wine
- Altering caffeine intake or excessive caffeine intake
- Skipping meals or fasting
- Loud noises
- Unusual smells
- Intense physical activity
- Some medications
How to Avoid Common Migraine Triggers
Once you have figured out your triggers, you have won half the battle, because many migraine-inducing things can be eliminated. Here are some ways to handle your triggers.
Use of the pill may help you to stay more regulated. Your doctor may have you experiment with different dosages.
I have to get at least seven and a half hours of sleep each night, and it’s best if I get it at the same time. However, if I have to work during a night shift, I know that I need to compensate by sleeping in the next day. I have found that I can successfully adjust the sleep times, so long as I get that amount of sleep.
I found this one out the hard way. Early in my marriage, I used prepared foods (like noodle mixes, canned soups, etc.). Many, many prepared foods (even including snack foods like chips) contain MSG. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants also use it, so you have to learn to ask about it when you eat out. I think having an intolerance to MSG is sort of a mixed blessing, though — it lead to learning how to cook healthier meals, more economically.
Figure out how to control your stress levels. Try yoga, meditation, biofeedback, exercise, counseling, etc. There are many methods of controlling stress, and even if you don’t suffer from migraines, you should learn how to deal.
This is a tough one, especially if you work in an office environment that uses fluorescent light bulbs. If you know this to be a trigger, perhaps your employer can accommodate your work area so that you have different lighting. Your physician can help you in this respect.
I have found that if I am really dying for chocolate, I can get away with it. I have to just have a small piece. If you make that piece a really high-quality type of chocolate, that helps, too.
There isn’t much you can do about this one. Sometimes, if the outside light seems to “glare,” sunglasses help.
Home Migraine Remedies
Unfortunately, sometimes I just blow it. I’m human. For me, I can usually get away with one thing — but if I combine a couple of triggers (say, I eat too much chocolate, and then I don’t get enough sleep) I may get a migraine. Here are ways to cope.
I have tried various types of pain relievers, but ibuprofen works best for me. At the first onset of an aura or tunnel vision, I pop two. Some report that Excedrin is helpful.
Get in a Dark Room
Unfortunately, that’s hard to do at work. If I feel a migraine coming on, and it feels like a bad one, I have to go home, at least until it passes. From experience, I know it isn’t just going to pass without employing more coping mechanisms. Close your curtains, turn out the lights, and lie down.
I don’t even like soda, but we always have Coke on hand. Caffeine is really helpful in alleviating migraine headache pain (“Cafergot” has caffeine in it). I slam down a can of it, sometimes using it to wash down the ibuprofen.
Same principle as Coke, but the Coke settles my stomach more than coffee does.
For me, having the TV on during a migraine just makes it worse.
It feels great to have a really cold washcloth on my forehead or neck.
I saved the best for last. For me (and for my daughter) the migraines are usually accompanied with severe nausea. We have both found that if we just “let it go” (toss your cookies, puke, drive the porcelain bus), we feel better almost instantly. So quit fighting it.
After years of dealing with migraines, I have concluded that, painful as they are, their “blessing” is that they are a signal to employ a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, they aren’t so much a tap-on-the-shoulder reminder as a slam-you-in-the head reminder.
Again, if you are having severe headaches, see your doctor. That is the appropriate starting place. Secondly, figure out your triggers, and try to avoid them. Lastly, if you do have a migraine, some of the above suggestions just might help.