“If a migraine is just a headache, then Godzilla is just a lizard”
One in seven of us will suffer from migraines, so there is a good chance that someone you know suffers with migraines – it might even be you.
It is estimated that there are nearly 200,000 migraines every day in the UK. More common in women than in men, it can affect us at any age – even as children. On average, a migraine sufferer will have 13 attacks a year, lasting up to 72 hours at a time.
Migraine is a complex problem and the truth is that medical science isn’t entirely certain on its cause. Whilst many people with migraines will experience headaches (usually a severe, throbbing, one-sided headache), there are many other symptoms and features of a migraine, such as: flashing lights or visual changes or sensitivity to the light, sensitivity to sound or smells, nausea or vomiting, numbness or pins and needles, slurred speech, irritability or abdominal pain. Sometimes, someone with a migraine will not even have a headache.
Migraines are thought to occur in five stages: prodrome, aura, main attack, resolution, recovery.
The prodrome can be tricky to pick out from normal day-to-day life, but those who can recognise it will talk about feelings of lethargy or irritability, or just feeling a bit off.
For some this will be followed by an ‘aura’. This would typically happen up to an hour before the attack. Someone might notice flashing lights, changes to their vision or speech, or other neurological features such as tingling or numbness. Migraine aura’s do not happen with every migraine, and it is estimated around one-fifth of migraines are associated with an aura.
I suffer with migraines – thankfully very rare these days, but when I get one they wipe me out. I don’t usually suffer with an aura when I do have a migraine – but it has happened. If I do get one, it will be flashing lights – strange flickering light towards the edge of my vision – just enough to make me wonder if I have seen it at all – and I get a bit muddled – almost as if my brain is suddenly wading through thick treacle and I feel I have to work hard just to think.
The main stage of the migraine is the ‘attack’ phase – this is when a headache (if present) will occur and can last up to 72 hours.
In the resolution and recovery phases, the headache and any other symptoms start to ebb away but patients will often say they feel particularly tired or wiped out, sometimes for a couple of days.
So if you suffer with migraines, what can you do about them? First off, it’s really important that if you are experiencing new, changing or worsening headaches you get these checked out by your doctor. If your doctor agrees that you are suffering with migraines you might then want to think about ‘triggers’.
Many migraine sufferers have triggers unique to them and there are so many possible triggers out there. To be able to start working out what might be setting your migraine off, a headache diary can be a great tool. You can download pre-set diaries or just use your calendar on your phone. Do this for a month or so and then look back over the information you have collected and see if any patterns jump out at you. For me, it’s lack of sleep – every time!
Common triggers are: emotional upheaval whether that be happy or sad, worry or anger, poor sleep or over tiredness, changes to environment, periods for women (as well as contraceptive pills and the menopause), dehydration, citrus, caffeine, cheeses, chocolate, alcohol, pork and monosodium glutamate.
Treatments vary depending on the type of migraine, how often they happen and your medical history, Broadly speaking these can be divided into ‘acute’ treatments – ones you take when an attack is happening and ‘preventative’ treatments – ones to take to try and stop attacks from happening. Simple measures such as paracetamol, anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and rest in a darkened, quiet room can be enough for some people. A word of warning about using codeine containing medications though – codeine and other opiates can can worsen or even cause headaches so should be avoided unless your doctor has advised you specifically to use them.
So if you’re one of the one in seven people in the UK who are thought to suffer from migraines, first off I feel for you and share your (head) pain. Secondly, don’t suffer in silence.
Migraines cannot be cured, but they can be managed. To talk about treatments that might help, speak with your doctor. As with so many medical conditions, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves – so why not consider keeping a headache diary and see what you can learn about your migraines.