I started experiencing migraines when I was around 10 years old, which means I’ve been experiencing them for about a decade now. There has been very little conclusive research into why migraines form, and so they are notoriously difficult – and subjective – to treat. I want to share some of the ways I went from daily tortured migraine sufferer to sporadic migraine withstander.
In the early days, I was confused about why my head was full of so much pain. I honestly thought I might be dying, or experiencing something serious like a stroke. I struggled to express what I was feeling other than ‘my head really hurts and I can’t see properly, and it actually kind of hurts to even think’.
Sometimes I forget that migraines aren’t a universal experience. According to the NHS, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 15 men experience migraines – which definitely isn’t as many as I thought. Migraines are pretty difficult to treat beyond painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol, drinking water, and lying in a dark room, because research hasn’t actually concluded on why and how they form. Most treatment is actually quite experimental.
It’s difficult to explain what a migraine is actually like. It’s a severe pain in your head, typically on one side, that frequently feels like it is pounding. I always found it difficult to explain why and how it’s different to an ordinary headache but, generally, it’s much more intense (as in, not manageable, and it becomes difficult to perform daily tasks), is frequently accompanied by an aura (more on this later), and it has a high impact on my vision and speech and makes me feel extremely lethargic.
Migraines are also often accompanied by an increased sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting. I generally don’t experience nausea, but I do find sensitivity to light and sound is both a symptom of an incoming migraine, and an experience during the migraine.
Seasoned migraine sufferers (like myself) have their coping mechanisms. I usually opt for drinking about a pint of water, taking a dose of ibuprofen and lying in a dark room until the worst passes. Luckily, though, I’ve grown to manage my migraines to the extent that I rarely have to resort to this anymore. Below are some of the steps I went through to go from controlled by to in control of my migraines.
Find your trigger – and avoid it
My granddad gave me this advice, and we found that we have a similar trigger: oranges. Specifically, my granddad noticed consistent migraines after eating marmalade, whereas I noticed consistent migraines after drinking orange juice, specifically from concentrate. Other people find things like coffee and chocolate to be a trigger. I also find that strong smells like petrol, some perfumes and bath bomb/soap shops can act as a trigger.
As with all migraine research, there is little knowledge on whether migraines are hereditary. However, if you have migraines and you have a family member who also experiences them, it might be worth having a conversation about what foods trigger you to see if there’s a link.
There is a useful list of ‘migraine safe foods‘ collated by The Association of Migraine Disorders if you’re struggling to quite put your finger on your trigger. There’s a huge range of things that it could be, but the most common triggers are foods containing preservatives, yeasts, flavourings, so if you’re looking for something to cut, they are a good place to start.
Write down when you have a migraine, and track anything out of the ordinary that you have done that day. Write down how you treat it, and how effective that treatment is. This will help you to find your trigger, but it was also help you to find the best ways to treat your symptoms.
Find your aura
An aura is a sensory disturbance that signals the beginning of a migraine. Examples include:
- blind spots
- zig zags across vision
- flashes of light
- black dots across the vision
- muscle weakness
- slurred speech
- ringing in the ears
- seeing, hearing or smelling things that aren’t there
Not everyone experiences auras, not every migraine is preceded by an aura, and not every aura precedes a migraine. However, if you can put your finger on a repeated sensory experience that tends to be followed by a migraine, you can reach for medication before the migraine really begins or gets unbearable.
Medicate when you need to
I think one of the most important things to realise in coping with migraines is that, if you always medicate with the maximum dose, it won’t be long before the medication stops working as well or as quickly. A useful treatment for this is to take a half dose initially, and the second half of the dose later, if needed.
Extra medication can also be sourced through a doctors appointment, although treating migraines is still quite underdeveloped. Triptans are thought to help reverse the formation of a migraine in the brain, and anti-emetics are thought to reduce the nausea associated with migraines.
In my experience, triptans actually made my symptoms worse, and my doctor offered beta blockers instead, but I refused. I still use ibuprofen, but in conjunction with other alternative treatments. A favourite of mine is actually ibuprofen lysine, a fast-acting version of ibuprofen which is also frequently marketed as ‘migraine relief’ medication.
There are a broad range of alternative migraine treatments, and The Migraine Trust has a really useful resource for exploring these. Options include things like botox, nerve stimulation, acupuncture, supplements and herbal remedies.
After a lot of research, I found some information online about how daith piercings can reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. This is a unique (and quite pretty) cartilage piercing in the ear that have become quite fashionable in the last couple of years. Developing from the theory behind acupuncture, getting a daith piercing to treat migraines is in the early stages of research, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence for it’s use and validity. Including me!
Getting my daith pierced genuinely changed my life. It reduced the frequency of my migraines from 3-4 per week to 3-4 per month, which is obviously not perfect but is a massive change. Equally, when I do get migraines, they’re not as intense. It also looks super pretty, and the earring can be changed either at home or by a piercer.
Consider getting an eye test
It could be that your migraines are actually triggered by eye strain. This was partially true for me, and getting an eye test opened my eyes to the pressure I was putting on my eyes and how it was affecting my brain. Your optician might also recommend some eye exercises that can help to strengthen your eyes and change their behaviour.