Hands up if you’ve ever had a migraine? I don’t mean a bad headache or a hangover. I mean a full on, at times debilitating, mind-bending migraine.
I do, and I’ve suffered from them for several years; for many of them I didn’t realise they were even migraines. Even after I was diagnosed with them, I still struggled with spotting when I was actually having one. Looking back, my first recollection of having a migraine comes from when I was quite young, and was at home. I was watching the TV, and suddenly had this feeling of the telly being huge and coming towards me, enveloping me in colour and sound. When I described this memory to someone many years later, they agreed that it was a migraine aura.
I think I’m better aware of the warning signs now, but I still sometimes miss them. My sister has, at times, pointed out that she thinks I’m having a migraine; she’s better at recognising the signs than I am!
Now, after years of battling through and trying to carry on through an attack, I’ve developed strategies that help me to get through and recover a bit more quickly. It’s really helped me to understand how migraines work, and to realise that I don’t always get the same symptoms every time.
There are 4 stages to a migraine; Pro-drome, Aura, Attack and Post-drome:
- PRO-DROME – This refers to the pre-cursors to an attack and can include tiredness, cravings for certain foods, mood swings, extreme thirst, neck stiffness and frequent yawning. These feelings can span between 1-24 hours. Just a note; many people associate some foods with causing an attack, such as chocolate or caffeine, but if you crave these things during the pro-drome stage, they are not the cause of your migraine.
- AURA – About 1/3 of people experience aura, but this doesn’t happen every time. They occur due to a spontaneous, slow-moving wave passing over the surface of the brain which temporarily affects the way parts of the brain functions as it travels over them. The symptoms depend on which parts are affected. Typical aura are visual, where you might see flashing lights, wavy lines, distorted or blurry vision or even a blind spot. The other kind are sensory aura, including ringing in your ears, smelling strange odours or just a ‘funny feeling’. Aura typically last less than an hour, and can bleed through into the next stage. The majority of migraines strike without the presence of aura, but it’s useful to be aware of how your migraines manifest as they’re an important warning sign of an imminent attack
- ATTACK – This is the main stage and can include intense pain on one or both sides of the head, nausea, vomiting and light and sound sensitivity. The attack phase can last up to 3 days if untreated, and the severity will probably be different every time.
- POST-DROME – Also known as the recovery phase, this is often described as feeling like a hangover or being extremely tired. Other symptoms include brain fog, trouble concentrating and depression. This phase can last up to 24 hours, although this varies from person to person.
My experience of migraine is that can’t always identify a cause, although I’m aware that stress is a major factor for me. I’ve also noted that I sometimes get a migraine around the time of my period. A change in hormone levels due to both of these things has been identified as a cause of migraines. At this point it’s useful to note that migraine affects 3 times as many women as it does men. Typical!
My strategy for dealing with my migraines has improved over the years as I’ve come to understand my triggers and what works. I have medication prescribed by my GP, and if I can take that early enough in an attack it can really help, but I’ve also found various other things help me. Going to bed in a dark room (or wearing an eye mask) with a weighted blanket, listening to a guided meditation to help me control my breathing, stodgy food, drinking water, if I can tolerate it —sometimes a sip of water can bring on nausea —, caffeine, a hot bath with CBD bath salts and eucalyptus oil to help clear my sinuses. This isn’t a exhaustive list; there are other things that sometimes work or help with the symptoms, depending on which stage I’m in when I realise it’s a migraine.
One of the most obvious signs that give away the fact that I’m having a migraine attack is that I can’t find the right words, or it takes my brain longer than normal to process what I want to say. I also become very sensitive to light and sound. These effects often bleed through into the post-drome stage for me, and I can have a brain fog feeling for a couple of days after the attack phase.
I very rarely give in to the migraine; if I’ve got stuff I need to do, I take my medication, and carry on through the attack as much as I can. If I’ve got nothing urgent that needs doing, then I can take the time to sleep, use my meditation and breathing techniques and get through the attack in that way. I hate giving in to the attack though, and can be too stubborn for my own good at times, in wanting to battle through. But I firmly believe that this condition will not define me, and that I will not let it rule my life. I think of myself as a migraine warrior; I don’t suffer, I power on!