Chris is 28, and through 20+ years of suffering from migraines—trying various pills and doctors—he has many painful truths to share.
Do you deal with frequent migraines? Have you ever experienced a migraine (or thought you have) at least once? Are you close to someone who deals with chronic migraines (CM) and are unsure of what to do for them? If you said ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, then this article will benefit you.
Despite being a common illness, there tends to be a lot of disinformation given about migraines that lead people to take improper actions to deal with their pain. Now before you read, you should know that I am NOT a doctor or specialist of any kind. I’m just a guy who’s dealt with chronic migraines for about 20 or so years, so I've learned a few things that I believe more people should be more aware of.
Although I’ll be presenting facts that I've learned along the way, I’ll also be speaking from personal experience—my trials and errors. I know also that not all experiences are the same, but I hope to at least guide people in the right direction and uncover some of the mysteries surrounding migraines. At the end of the day, it’s best to see a headache specialist or neurologist.
How Common Are Migraines?
The infamous migraine is one of the most common and painful conditions that plague people all around the world. In fact, it the third most prevalent illness in the world. According to the AmericanMigraineFoundation.org, about 12% of people in the U.S. are chronic migraine sufferers.
It is also considered the sixth most disabling illness in the world. About 91% of people who have migraines miss work because they can't function properly...I can attest to this all to well. Anyone who has dealt with the pain can tell you how hard it is to complete even the simplest tasks.
6 Things You Should Know About Migraines
- Migraines are NOT just headaches.
- You'd know if you've had a migraine.
- Yes, the pain really is that bad.
- They're typically caused by changes in brainstem activity and brain chemistry.
- There are many factors that can trigger a migraine.
- Migraine sufferers need more support.
1. Migraines Are NOT Just Headaches
Okay, so I’m very well aware that they’re called migraine headaches, but believe me when I say that they’re so much more than just headaches. There are too many symptoms associated with a migraine for it to be just a headache. Migraine Buddy states that there are four stages of a migraine:
- Migraine attack
I'll describe two of the stages here; you can visit their site to learn more detail about each stage.
What Happens Right Before a Migraine Attack?
One of the most notable signs that you have a migraine are described as visual disturbances and occur in the second stage (aura). You may see arbitrary colors and swirls in your line of vision or in your periphery. This usually happens before the actual headache itself. I personally can’t vividly recall seeing auras before my attacks, though I may have once or twice. The severity of each stage isn't the same for each person, but everyone can agree that the migraine attack is the absolute worst part!
What Does a Migraine Feel Like?
During a migraine attack, you may experience anything from nausea/vomiting, sore neck and shoulders, fever-like symptoms, weakness, extreme pain (usually on one side of the head more than the other) that’ll make you feel a sense of impending doom (anxiety), irritability, insomnia, and sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, and movement itself. These symptoms can last for hours—or even days. I had a migraine last almost three days (with a few short breaks in between thanks to medication).
2. You'd Know If You've Had a Migraine
From my description of what a typical migraine feels like, you should at least be able to empathize with the torture from a migraine. However, some of you may still be unsure whether you've experienced one before. Unless you were very young at the time, I find it hard to believe that you can forget the experience. Most people who drink tend to remember their worst hangovers. So, let me help with a little example.
You Can Liken It to a Bad Hangover
Have you ever had a really bad hangover after a fun and somewhat less-than-memorable night of drinking? Do you remember how bad it was? The aching, the throbbing/stabbing pain in your head and neck, the nausea, the sensitivity to light, sound, and smell—do you remember that? Did you have a hard time moving or keeping your eyes open? If you’ve said “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you have a pretty good idea of what a migraine is like. The only difference is that migraines are usually more painful, can occur at any time and harder to get rid of. There are also many factors that can trigger a migraine.
3. Yes, the Pain Really Is That Bad
Anyone who’s suffered through more than one migraine will have a hard time believing anyone else who says they've had one and it wasn't "that bad." Oh please!
Though I can only speak of my personal experience, I’m sure many—if not all—migraine sufferers can relate. I usually experience an extremely sharp pain along the right side of my head—almost like my skull is cracking. It usually starts from the occipital region (lower back side of the head) to my forehead. The pain will eventually trickle off and radiate to the other side of head, my ears, face, teeth and gums, neck, and shoulders.
I find it very hard to be comfortable or even wear clothing when I'm in this phase. My body is left feeling extremely weak and shaky. My eyes will start to feel as though they’re getting extremely hot—like all the moisture is getting sucked out by hot air. Keeping them open for just a second too long results in agony. The pain also tends to send me into a little bit of an anxious state when it’s really bad, leading me to think that the pain will never end and I’m stuck with this torture for good! Dramatic, I know, but very true.
4. They're typically caused by changes in brainstem activity and brain chemistry.
As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if most migraine sufferers don't know what actually causes the pain. For the longest time, I thought my brain itself was experiencing the pain, but I was wrong. Once you understand what's really going on, you can better address your problems and relieve your symptoms.
What Causes Migraines?
According to Mayo Clinic, migraines are usually caused by changes with the brain stem and a major pain neuropathway called the trigeminal nerve. Typically, imbalances in hormonal activity play a big role. The blood vessels in the scalp and cranium become dilated and irritable, agitating the surrounding nerves.
"Serotonin levels drop during a migraine attack. This may cause your trigeminal nerve to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain's outer covering (meninges). The result is migraine pain. Other neurotransmitters play a role in the pain of migraine, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP)."
This is something that I’ve known for a little while myself, but please feel free read more about the changes that happen—stay in the know! The decrease in serotonin levels could explain why women are far more likely to get migraines than men, given the difference in frequency of hormonal changes between the two sexes. The fluctuating hormone levels in the body could also explain why you aren't able to function very well; the nerves in the body become overactive and leads to body aches and other feverish symptoms.
5. There Are Many Factors That Can Trigger a Migraine
I’m going to break down the most common triggers for a migraine attack and what you can do about them. Most of these are based on what have helped me in the past, and they may not work for everyone. The information is to help give you an idea of what you’re dealing with and to point you in the right direction. I implore you to see a physician for any final opinions.
1. Poor Diet
It’s no secret that processed foods and additives are bad for you. Who knows what kinds of reactions you may have in the long-run. It’s easy for us to dismiss the quality of our diets—especially in our fast-paced society—but it's important to consume high quality foods. Foods that have too much unhealthy fats, salts, and sugars, and foods that you may have an allergic reaction or sensitivity to are ones that you should either completely cut out or at least cut back on dramatically.
What to do: Keep a food log. Every time you get a migraine, think of any foods you ate the day before or the day of. Write them down: what you ate, how much, and at what time. If you notice a consistent pattern, then cut those foods out of your diet and see what happens. Two food triggers for me are pretzels and licorice. Just the smell can bring on an attack for me. Since I've updated my diet, I've noticed a decrease in migraine attacks day to day.
This one is simple to explain and fix. You aren't drinking enough water throughout the day. I struggled with this myself. It's often hard to even notice when you’re dehydrated, but that doesn't mean your body won't.
What to do: Drink more water…surprise! It doesn't have to be a gallon, but make sure you at least have a full glass as soon as you wake up, right before and/or during every meal, and as you go to bed.
Don't like drinking plain water? Plenty of foods, like cucumbers, watermelon, iceberg lettuce, kiwis, and lemons, have the ability to not only hydrate you but recharge your electrolytes as well. Once you increase your water intake, you'll start to notice diminished migraine headaches.
If you choose to drink alcohol, then drink as much water as you can before, during, and after your night drinking. I know, I know—it’s not much fun that way, but a major reason why that hangover is as painful as a migraine is because of the dehydration.
I think we all have an idea of how stress can affect us. Whether it’s work, school, family, friends, relationships, or just the life itself, stress has no shortage of avenues to reach you.
What to do: This is easier said than done, but you need to reduce the stress in your life. Some stress is good, but not when it’s making you sick and tired. Adopt a cleaner diet and drinking more water.
Try to be active as well. You don't have to pump major iron at the gym, though it’ll help. Take light walks or go jogging. Do some yoga, workout at home, reading a book, pick up a hobby—heck, even getting a pet might help. Just make sure it's well-trained (to avoid adding even more stress!). Ever since I started working out regularly, I've found a great outlet for my stress, along with my music and reading.
Also, learn to think with different perspectives. Don’t overreact to things you can’t control. Just take a few breaths, and try to let things go. It’s tough at first, but it’s a great trait to have.
This is probably the most important and most overlooked cause of chronic migraines. Your susceptibility to getting migraines can be explained through genetics. This one applies to me the most. I've been officially diagnosed with CM, and the only cause that several doctors I've seen have agreed on is genetics. This makes sense considering my mom and dad both suffered tremendously with migraines.
This ties into why women are more likely to get migraines. Women go through more hormonal fluctuations because of the menstrual cycle. But that's not to say that ALL women will get migraines.
What to do: See a physician. I recommend a specialist, to be precise. The specialists will have the most insight as to what tests, diagnoses, medications, treatments, and referrals would be most beneficial. That’s what I did, though it took some trial and error to get me on a medication that actually worked. Don’t wait!
5. Other Triggers
Other triggers that I didn't get into that you may want to consider are:
- changes in weather/environment
- too much activity
- overstimulation of the senses (too much light, sound, or even smell)
- smoking cigarettes
- medications you’re taking
Be mindful of the things you do in your day-to-day life if you’re worried about getting a migraine. Even if you haven’t gotten a migraine, it’d still be wise to consider the changes mentioned above—simply to improve your overall health and well-being.
6. Migraine Sufferers Need More Support
This section is specifically for those of you who are close to someone who has CM. Just like with many ailments, migraines can make one’s life very difficult, so support and understanding from their friends and family will mean a lot.
Here are a few things you should probably keep in mind if you know someone suffering with chronic migraines.
You may not be able to be of much help to them during a migraine attack.
Most of us know how to deal with it when we’re out and about, and that usually starts with preventing it from happening in the first place. Don’t feel bad if you find that you aren't able to help. Just let them take the lead, and be patient.
Oftentimes, just knowing that you’ll be there for us is very comforting. There have been plenty of times when I’m out with friends or coworkers and I get an attack. The first thing everyone tries to do is tell me how to deal with the attack, when really, they don’t know my triggers or medical history. The issue comes in when I tell them that what they’re suggesting isn't going to work and they get offended—like I'm trying to make them look stupid or as if I don't want their help.
It’s okay to want to help, but the best place to start is asking questions. You don’t have to take on the burden yourself, but if you want to learn more about someone’s migraines, then simply ask questions and learn what you can. Don’t be offended when we say, “No, that’s not the reason why I’m having an attack” or “I already tried that, that’s not the issue." We don’t say that to make you feel bad. It’s just that we likely already know what our triggers are.
What You Shouldn't Do
Don’t try to force your advice on someone if you haven’t made an effort to learn about that person's unique situation.
What to Do Instead
When one of my exes had really bad cramps from her monthly visitor, I did everything I could to make sure she knew I would help her to best of my abilities—and that started with me asking, “What can I do? What do you normally do for this? Let me know if you need anything."
I did what I could, then I gave her space because it wasn't about me feeling like I was helpful as much as me wanting to make sure she was as comfortable as possible. If there’s nothing you can do, then there’s nothing you can do. Don’t beat yourself up; just try to be supportive as best as possible. It really helps.
Be careful when trying to relate.
Please don’t compare your regular headaches to our migraines. If anything, that'll just make us feel worse. Now, I know regular headaches can be pretty bad too, but the way I see it, comparing a headache you had a long time ago to someone's CM is like comparing a stubbed toe to a broken leg.
I know your heart may be in the right place by trying to empathize, but all we need is a little support. I know I do. Don’t worry about trying so hard to relate if you can’t. If you’re talking to someone with lung cancer who needs a machine to breathe, are you going to complain about the time you were out of breath because you couldn’t run a mile under seven minutes? Just being able to walk a mile without a breathing machine would be a dream to the person you’re talking to.
Like I said, the pain that comes with migraines is enough to crush one’s spirit at times, only those who’ve suffered with CM can truly relate to our plight—as is the case with any other group of people who deal with certain issues in life.
Migraines can affect one's lifestyle, but don't take it personally.
If you were to take one thing away from this entire piece, it’s this: people with CM tend to become depressed and/or anxious people over time, never knowing when the next migraine attack will hit them. Not all people with CM are the same, but anxiety and depression are more common than you may think.
A lack of knowledge and/or access to proper treatment can cause a migraine sufferer to become very frustrated. Understand that your loved one may cancel plans with you here and there. Know that plans may change or be cut short because of an unforeseen attack. Be aware that you may go a while without seeing that loved one, or if you do, you’ll see a different side of them that may be hard to deal with. Know that even when they seek treatment, they’ll still most likely have a difficult time trying to find the right medications with the least amount of side effects.
Keep This Mind
I encourage you to not take it personally when plans get canceled or changed on you. I’ve had such bad migraines that my friends went from being worried about me, to kind of frustrated with me rather than for me, and that’s just not fair. It’s extremely difficult to do just about anything once a migraine sets in. Please try to understand that.
I can say that aside from being uncomfortable and in agony, I try not to hang out with my friends when I get an attack because I don’t want to hold my friends back from doing what they want to. I’d much, much rather miss out on something and have my friends enjoy it than having all of us missing out just because of my migraines.
Keeping up with work was tough for me for a long time as well. I was blessed with my last job because not only have I put so much time into that job, I was one of the best workers. One of the reasons why I worked so hard for them too was because they understood my issues and worked with me on it. You have no idea how much appreciation I felt from that because, like I stated earlier, people tend to get frustrated with me, saying that my migraines are "just an excuse." That hurts to hear...
As long I have people in life willing to understand and work with me, I will always do my best for them. Can I assume that many of you other migraine sufferers feel the same way? Having patient people in your life who genuinely care is priceless, and one should never lose sight of that. Those are the kinds of supportive people migraine suffers (everybody, really) need in their lives.
I’m not only grateful to God, my friends, and family that have supported me, but for the advances in medicine. Though we may not have a cure for migraines, we’ve gotten better at helping people live better lives despite the struggles.
For all of you out there that suffer with migraines who need answers, I sure hope that you’re able to take something away from this, even though there’s still so much more I can talk about.
You’re not alone in this. There are people out there just waiting to help you. And believe it or not, you can live a healthy and happy life with CM. I can say that because that life is becoming more real for me every day. But I have to put in the work myself as well.
Stay proactive and stay positive. Much love, and keep fighting,
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.