Migraine Symptoms, Treatment and Medication—It's Not "Just a Headache"
Migraines With Aura and Without: A Personal Experience
My experience with migraines started as a child. I recall sitting down at my desk in school and having this pounding pain over my left eye. My stomach felt sick, and I wanted to vomit. A sympathetic teacher drove me home and I found relief by holding my head close to an electric fire. This would be a recurrent event as I grew up—the headache, the awfully sick stomach, and then longing to find somewhere to just lie down in the dark and be undisturbed until the attack was over. These attacks were often followed by a sense of euphoria once I became well.
What Do Migraines Feel Like?
"No, it's not just a headache." Those who do not suffer from migraines often can't understand the amount of suffering migraine victims undergo. The attitude is often, “it’s only a headache,” but this is far from the truth. A migraine sufferer often feels like their head is going to explode.
What Is a Migraine?
A migraine is a neurological disorder. It is thought to be caused by the release of inflammatory hormones into the bloodstream and this, in addition to dilating blood vessels in the lining of the brain, causes the symptoms of pain. A migraine differs from milder headaches in terms of the intensity of pain and the duration of the attack. Often the headache is one-sided, throbbing, and located above the eye. It can also produce visual symptoms or aura and may cause violent nausea which obviously makes treatment with oral painkillers difficult.
What Are Migraine Triggers?
A multitude of trigger factors are supposed to spark off a migraine. Everyone is different, and any specific trigger may affect one person and have no effect on someone else. Current thinking though is that certain foods may not actually cause a migraine, but may instead be the effect of a food craving in the lead up to an attack.
Typical triggers are:
- Food: Cheese, chocolate, or red wine
- Too much sleep
- Too little sleep
- Going without meals for too long
- Lack of sleep
- Excessively hot environments
- Perfumes (this includes natural perfumes, i.e. roses)
- Smoke from cigarettes, solid fuel fires, etc.
Personally, I have found that hyperstimulation will normally give me an attack. Take for instance the case where you travel to the city on a shopping trip. You enter a department store and are bombarded by bright lights, people talking, and bumping into you, the colors of all the products on display, the smell of perfumes, signs in your face and the heat inside the building. This is the sort of stuff which would "do your head in." For a migraine sufferer, this is sort of literally true!
Does High Blood Pressure Cause Headaches or Migraine?
Untreated high blood pressure is normally symptomless unless it's dangerously high, which is why it has been called the silent killer. It's worth getting your BP checked and if you suffer from "white coat syndrome" which causes BP to shoot up due to the anxiety and apprehension of having to attend a doctor, a 24 hour test is possible. 24 hour BP measurement involves wearing a cuff attached to a BP monitor and logger worn at waist level that measures pressure every 15 minutes over a 24 hour period. This gives a more realistic representation of how your BP changes over the day and night. I'm speculating, but migraines could be aggravated by pressure in blood vessels being higher, and there's nothing to lose by having it checked.
How Migraines Can Be Treated
When I was young, my migraines were infrequent and they were treated with aspirin. As I reached my 20s and 30s, they became more severe and occurred more frequently. I found relief by taking an over-the-counter medication called Syndol. This contains paracetamol plus codeine, and an ingredient called doxylamine succinate. The latter ingredient is an antihistamine/sedative/muscle relaxant which is also found in sleeping tablets. It is very effective at reducing tension headaches and neck tension which can accompany a migraine. It does tend to make you very sleepy and irritable though. Since the product also contains codeine, you have to be very careful to avoid prolonged use as it can result in addiction. The triptans group of medication can halt an attack in its tracks but are rather expensive. These are available in inhaler form since nausea can prevent stomach absorption of medication.
I then tried prophylactic or preventative treatment with beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and antidepressants, but didn’t notice any improvement in my condition. Everyone is different though and these medications may be of benefit to some people.
Feverfew for Migraines—A Natural Treatment
A natural remedy which some people recommend is feverfew, a wild plant which has anti-inflammatory properties like aspirin. A few leaves of the plant can be taken per day, or a safer option is to take feverfew tablets where the dose is known. I tried feverfew for about a month but can’t honestly say that it reduced the frequency or severity of my migraines.
Positive and Negative Feedback
You may have experienced audio feedback in a hall when the gain of the PA system is set too high. A screeching starts in the speakers and the volume increases rapidly to an unbearable level. This is known as positive feedback, caused by the sound from speakers being fed back through the microphone to the amplifier. This fed back signal gets amplified, reinforces the sound from the speakers and gets fed back, again and again, resulting in the high pitched whistle. In physics and control theory, the system is described as having become "unstable." The same thing happens when you are learning to ride a bike, you start over-steering and then wobble from side to side and fall off!
I reckon the progression of a migraine attack is analogous to what I described above. When you get a headache, your forehead tenses up, you experience the pain and perhaps nausea. All these symptoms cause stress and anxiety and you think, "Oh, my, God! How am I going to get through this?" (Especially if you are at work!) This leads to more tensing up, increased blood flow in the forehead and brain, and more pain, which causes you to be more anxious. So, the symptoms snowball until they reach a climax.
So what if we could turn this positive, reinforcing feedback into negative feedback? Its easier said than done, but what this involves is trying to become more relaxed, both mind and body, as the pain increases. This slows down your heart rate and blood flow and counteracts the "anger" in the forehead and brain. It doesn't always work, but the next time you have a migraine and are at home, don't take pills but try this technique and see if it works. It mightn't stop the attack, but it can slow its progress.
Is There a Cure for Migraines?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for migraines, only medication to reduce the severity of pain or prevent the onset of attacks in the first place. To prevent attacks occurring, you may have to change your lifestyle or even your job if it's a high-stress one. However there is hope and as you get older, your headaches may become less severe and frequent. After about 36 years I found that the pattern of my headaches changed. They were less frequent and progressed much slower, so that pain medication got a chance to work before nausea developed. Even If I didn't take medication, peak pain levels were no worse than a "normal," mild headache and tolerable. I find that if I get overly stressed or do too much intense "brain work," this can cause headaches, but not an intense migraine as before.
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.
Questions & Answers
Do you have to have a prescription for Syndol?
It depends on the country of sale. It contains paracetamol and codeine. Codeine is illegal in some countries, a prescription is required in others and where it's available prescription-free over the counter, stricter regulation on sale may require a pharmacist to question a customer about how they intend to use it and suggest alternatives. Ultimately it's up to their discretion whether they will sell it to the customer without a prescription.
© 2011 Eugene Brennan