They’re not just headaches. For the millions of Americans who suffer from migraines, the painful attacks can be crippling and may even cause victims to take days off from work or school. And while this disability is both common and commonly misunderstood, professionals are adamant that remedies are out there that just might take the pain away.
Migraines, which UHealth describes as painful “attacks” caused by a chronic brain disorder, are extremely common. But they are just as commonly ignored. “They are actually the number one cause of disability in people less than 50,” said Dr. Teshamae Monteith, chief of the headache division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “It’s a treatable problem that is often under-treated and under-diagnosed.” Because migraines are so common, she said, many people tend to minimize or downplay the condition and “don’t recognize the link between disability and migraine.”
“It was debilitating; when it would get to a certain point, I just literally couldn’t do anything,” said UM sophomore Charlotte Hoffman. “The only way to make it go away was to sleep. Sometimes, I used to even throw up.”
Certain people are predisposed to migraines because the disorder is genetic and may react to triggers like stress, changes in sleep, weather, skipping meals and hormones. Lindsay Cruz, a sophomore in UM’s business school, said she has suffered from ocular migraines, which affect vision, since her junior year of high school. “I get them before my period because my hormones drop rapidly,” Cruz said. “Before I get the headache, I see this white dot and it takes over my eye and everywhere I look, it’s there. Once that subsides a little bit I get the headache, which usually lasts the whole day. Sometimes I get nauseous and throw up from it. The only thing I can do is sleep in a silent dark room. Advil doesn’t even help.” Thankfully, Cruz has found a preventative remedy: birth control, which she said balanced out her hormone levels.
As for Hoffman, her migraines started in middle school after an untreated concussion. The sharp attacks, she said, were triggered by reading, using a computer, or “basically any stimulus.” The migraines subsided until she went through puberty, which triggered her hormones again.
These hormonal migraines, she said, felt like they started at her neck and wrapped themselves around the inside of her head. “I feel like a headache is usually just one spot,” she said, “like you get a headache behind your eye or something. But this would usually stem from the base of my neck and radiate throughout my head. It felt like my whole head was experiencing a lot of pressure from the inside which is why massages were the only thing, other than sleep and darkness, that would help.” Hoffman said that she used to experience these episodes every time she started her period, but now that puberty is over, they have subsided.
According to UHealth, women are three times more likely than men to report migraines and 25% of women will experience a migraine in their life. This commonality, Dr. Monteith said, makes the disability seem more casual and thus less people seek treatment, which is unfortunate because reliable treatments are out there.
“It’s a modifiable disorder, so there are good preventive therapies,” she said. “I think it’s important to let people know that a migraine can be treated very effectively.” While students reported turning to Tylenol or Advil, for example, Monteith said there are better treatments out there than over-the-counter medications.
“If it’s preventing you from going to school or work or functioning and living your life,” Dr. Monteith said, “you should consider getting treatment by a neurologist, primary care doctor or even a headache specialist because it’s a treatable problem.”
The Stages of a Migraine
Can’t tell if your headaches are more than headaches? These symptoms indicate that you have a migraine.
One or two days before a migraine, you might notice subtle changes that warn of an upcoming migraine, including:
– Mood changes, from depression to euphoria
– Food cravings
– Neck stiffness
– Increased thirst and urination
– Frequent yawning
Auras are reversible symptoms of the nervous system. They’re usually visual, but can also include other disturbances.
– Visual phenomena or loss
– Pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg
– Weakness or numbness in the face or body
– Difficulty speaking
– Hearing noises or music
– Uncontrollable jerking or other movements
A migraine usually lasts from four to 72 hours. During a migraine, you might have:
– Sensitivity to light, sound, smell and touch
– Nausea and vomiting
After a migraine attack, you might feel drained, confused and washed out for a day. Some report feeling elated. Sudden head movement might bring on the pain briefly.
*According to Mayo Clinic
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This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2021 print issue.