Migraines: What They Are and How to Deal With Them

By Julia Rasor – July 15, 2021

Not even the darkest room can cancel out the light, nor can closed lips in a theater be quiet enough. It’s an overwhelming sensitivity to everything and each minuscule experience magnifies the pain. It’s a complete inability to function in the day-to-day when the hammer comes bashing your head in: Migraines. Migraines are not your typical headaches and I’ve spent my life suffering from them.

I was diagnosed with migraines at the age of five. As a little girl experiencing this level of a migraine, who would pass out from pain or have to immediately throw up outside of a moving car, this was terrifying for all of those around me. However, a couple of decades later, and having suffered from this episodic pain my whole life (in what I can only roughly guess), I have experienced over 600+ migraines, and I am only now truly understanding how to help myself.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world. Over time, there have been misconceptions between the association of a headache and a migraine, which has inhibited the ability to establish the severity of language used when explaining the disorder. Migraines are ultimately a disorder of the nervous system function where it was once previously believed to simply be a vascular headache. At the core, migraines are a severe neurological condition that 39 million people in the U.S. suffer from — and one billion in the world.

What exactly is a migraine?

Research released in 2019 solidifies the 43-year-old theory that the trigeminovascular system is at the center of a migraine’s roots. The neurons in the trigeminovascular system convey pain signals to multiple different areas in the brainstem, those of which that cause; nausea, vomiting, yawning, teary eyes, urination, anxiety, irritability, loss of appetite, fatigue, sensitivities to light, sound and touch. 

New understanding of the neuropeptides, essentially just small proteins that are a part of synaptic transmission, in the trigeminovascular system is the CGRP which was discovered in 1982. Now, the success in blocking the CGRP in migraine prevention has proven to be a successful method in episodic therapy. 

The symptoms of migraines can vary greatly depending on the type of migraine you are experiencing: episodic or chronic. The primary difference between an episodic and chronic migraine boils down to the number of days one has to deal with these painful experiences. The stages of an episodic migraine can last for 0-14 days per month while a chronic migraine is 15 or more days per month. According to the Mayo Clinic, during that time, an individual can experience a variety of different symptoms:

  • Sensitivity to light, smells and sounds. Sometimes even touch.
  • Pain that throbs and pulses, and that can focus on one side or often both sides of the head.
  • Nausea and vomiting

Additionally, the experience of a migraine extends beyond typical symptoms. Sometimes the pain can be so severe that people report losing the ability to speak or experience a loss of cognition and even short term memory. The inconvenience of the pain can disable the ability to function in daily life, often taking days to overcome. The lifespan of a migraine can often last three to four days at a time. Personally, my regular migraine lifespan is about 13 to 18 hours.

The Stages of a Migraine

A migraine typically has four stages; prodrome, aura, attack and postdrome. These stages go beyond just the symptoms one experiences during an attack, as a migraine has warning signs that could help a sufferer prepare for an attack. 

Prodrome

This stage typically happens a couple days before an attack. You may notice increased constipation, depression, frequent yawning, irritability, neck stiffness and unusual food cravings. However, identifying triggers to your migraine can help you predict an attack as well. Common triggers include, but aren’t limited to; dehydration, hormonal changes, stress, motion sickness, recent injuries, lack of sleep, sun exposure, alcohol consumption, nitrate consumption (like processed meats), consumption of MSGs, changes in the weather and changes in sleep patterns.

Aura

Not every migraine sufferer experiences this stage, but during this phase, an individual will experience additional symptoms like; seeing bright spots or flashes, partial or complete vision loss, “pins-and-needles” sensations in an arm or leg, weakness or numbness of the face and or side of the body, difficulty speaking, hearing noises or music and uncontrollable jerking. As the Mayo Clinic explains, Auras’ side effects are reversible, but often last from a few minutes up to an hour.

Attack – (See “What is a Migraine” above.)

Postdrome

What I affectionately refer to as the “hangover phase,” sufferers feel drained and burned out while recovering from the pain. Some experience a surge of energy from being released from the experience. Even if it can last for days at a time, when it’s over, sufferers continue to feel its effects.

How to Help Yourself When You Get a Migraine

The biggest battle of them all — what can you do when you inevitably get a migraine? There are prevention methods that can help manage the pain, occurrence and lifespan of a migraine if proactive enough. Migraine sufferers are very susceptible to additional stressors. Some of the ways you can help your body are;

  • Commit to a healthy, regular sleep schedule. This is really important and will help your brain stay strong and ready.
  • Make some dietary changes. Knowing the big foods to avoid (alcohol, caffeine, cheese and chocolate) will help prevent migraines. But be consistent, don’t skip meals and feed yourself well.
  • Figure out how to manage your stress. Your brain needs a break, and if you don’t give it one, the migraine pain will be all the worse. Finding different ways to bring some relief, I have found that regularly reading a book every week gives me a positive outlet to stay still and breathe.

But what can you do for in-the-moment migraine pain? This is a difficult question, because in most cases migraine sufferers just have to ride it out. But the best thing to do, and what I religiously commit to, is find a quiet and peaceful place and lay down to sleep. Provide myself with some thermal therapy, like a cold or hot compress on my head, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Sometimes the only and best thing to do for your body, is to give it the rest it needs.

 
 

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