Migraines. A mystery to those who don’t suffer them. A nightmare to those who do. Upsetting, debilitating, and 8 million* people in the UK experience them. For me, they are unpredictable and incredibly distressing. I have three possible known triggers – Coke (more than 1 glass), Yorkie chocolate, and ‘giant’ Parma violets – but the majority of my migraines occur without me knowing why, which leaves me with an underlying nervousness. This morning I woke up, had a shower, and by the time I’d stepped out of the water I realised a migraine was happening. It might have been the hot, humid night, but that’s not a certainty. I’ll probably never know why I get them.
Migraines come in many different forms, and they are not just a ‘bad headache’. Those who get them know the exasperation when someone says “just take an ibuprofen”. If only it was that simple. I lose the vision in one my eyes – not just blurry, I go completely blind. One side of my face and one arm goes numb. When I first had an attack aged 11, my parents thought I was having a stroke. When I had one at school and I couldn’t read the pages any more, everyone panicked. It is called a hemiplegic migraine with aura, simply because it affects one side of the body and ‘aura’ relates to any visual disturbances. But it’s much more complicated to experience.
It usually begins with a small patch in my vision flickering in rainbow colours. It used to only be my left eye, but this morning it swapped sides. This patch grows until the colours just turn to nothing and I can no longer see. At various stages I’ll get numbness in my arm and face – even down to my tongue being half and half. Then the headache will start. Sometimes it’s not that bad, other times I feel like my head’s being crushed in a vice. Slurring of speech and forgetting words was a new development about 6 years ago, and doesn’t happen every time. My migraines used to occur like clockwork every year, then I had a spate of three in a row followed by a two-year gap. I had two within two months last year, and today’s was 13 months since the last. There’s no knowing when, if ever, I’ll have another one.
The symptoms can be over within an hour or two, or I can spend the whole day battling to stay sane. I must say my prescribed medication works wonders – if I take it quickly enough. This morning as soon as I saw the patch in my vision I took the pill, and within 40 minutes the visual disturbances had gone and I didn’t get any numbness whatsoever. The headache came, as was inevitable, but it could have been worse. Sometimes I don’t realise it’s a migraine, and then the medication isn’t as effective. 6 hours spend in half-blindness was a very distressing time last year which nothing seemed to shift. Regardless, when I get a migraine I have to sleep. Once, I got to a crag to go climbing when a migraine hit. I took the medication and fell asleep for two hours on a sun-baked boulder. One of the more pleasant migraine experiences. I tend to sleep deeply and solidly which, for someone who used to suffer from insomnia, is almost blissful. My brain switches off to recover, and I generally wake up when the worst is over.
Recently, I’ve learnt a new word in association with migraines. The ‘post drome’. It’s effectively a migraine hangover which can last from hours to days. It leaves you feeling lethargic, weak, and bruised. Your head feels heavy, your brain aching, and you lack energy. The trauma caused in the brain by a migraine will obviously have some residual effect, and that’s what I’m currently experiencing. Slightly spaced out, a bit light-sensitive, and considering going back for another nap.
What’s astonishing about this condition which affects so many people is we still don’t fully understand it. Scientists are yet to work out exactly what the cause is, or how best to treat it. As I said, my medication – rizatriptan benzoate – is amazing, but there are articles out there suggesting salt and lemon water (which I tried this morning and could barely hold down a sip), and even Botox* is being suggested as a preventative treatment for chronic migraines. But there’s still so much we don’t know. All I do know, is they’re a pain I have to live with, and much more than just a headache.