I am gradually resurfacing from a particularly long migraine. When I started this blog I aimed to post something Japan-related once or twice a week, and apart from the time I have spent in the UK I have managed that. This time last week, I had just been out for a walk in the snow, and enjoyed writing a post about it. Then the atmospheric pressure dropped suddenly and I found myself with a migraine that would just not budge. Today is Day 8, and I am hoping that surely, it can’t last much longer. But I am also thinking that this is something that happens often and therefore it would be useful to write this (unrelated to Japan) post to explain my occasional absences.
So, migraines. Not just a type of headache, not cured with paracetamol (acetaminophen) or other over-the-counter medicine. I have been living with them for over thirty years, but for the first ten years or so they were not diagnosed. I saw the doctor frequently, yet despite describing what surely is a typical migraine (pain on one side of my head, sensitivity to light, nausea) I was told I had either sinusitis or was so stressed I had somehow made half of my head go into some kind of spasm. When I finally worked it out for myself and told the doctor I thought they were migraines, he remarked quite dismissively that it was quite probably so, but that I could still stand up and many people who have migraines can’t, so I should just go home and take cocodamol (paracetamol with codeine, available OTC in the UK after Mrs. Thatcher deregulated a lot of such medicines to save money for the NHS).
Encouraged by a pharmacist at Boots who had studied migraines, I went back to see a different doctor and asked for prescription medicine and so began a long period of trying different things to find what worked. I tried beta blockers (Propranalol), Amitriptyline, epilepsy medicine (Topiramate) and refused to take Prozac. I tried acupuncture and feverfew. Nothing worked, and Topiramate made everything much worse even after I stopped taking it. I cut out what I found were triggers; cheese (except fresh cheese like cottage cheese) and red wine, and cut down on the fermented foods I knew could make an attack more likely. I gradually made a list of all the things that make an attack more likely, and this included: hormonal fluctuations, food triggers, lack of sleep, stress, excessive computer use (!), fluorescent lighting and low atmospheric pressure. I found a medicine that did work; Sumatriptan, branded as Imigran in the UK, Imitrex in the US. I also found what helped when I did have a migraine; avoiding all the things listed above where possible, plenty of sleep, ice packs at the base of my skull or over my eye where the migraine started and ended, conversely long, hot showers and prayer. This last one might seem out of place, but really, when a migraine goes on and on it’s easy to feel stressed or panicked and a time of prayer or quiet meditation helps me to ease that.
I grew up in a family where I was the only one to have migraines; consequently no one recognised what was happening to me. It was a relief to finally know what the pain was, that it wasn’t just headaches and that I wasn’t pathetic to be unable to cope. It was a relief to hear other people describe the pain in the same way; like a bruise in the brain. I was told recently that the brain has no feeling, so the pain I feel is around my brain, but it feels like it’s in my brain. It made sense to me when I read in the Oliver Sacks book on migraine that the chemical secreted during an attack is similar to a bee sting, because that’s what it feels like. (I did look through the book this evening to try to find the page reference, but I couldn’t find it.)
If you suffer from migraines, you have my sympathy. If you don’t, but know someone who does, be gentle with them. They don’t have a headache, they have a migraine, and it’s not the same. The people who declare, ‘I have a migraine,’ when they mean they have a bad headache, are as wrong as someone with a bad cold announcing that they have ‘flu. A migraine is like a headache only because they are both pain in the head, but beyond that the similarity ends. You may have a bad headache, but if you take some paracetamol or ibuprofen the pain will stop; I have someone hammering bee stings into my brain and sometimes not even Sumatriptan can stop it.
It seems I am coming out of this most recent attack. I hope I won’t have another for a while, I am feeling quite drained and my head is sore. But I am back on my blog, and will have something Japan-related very soon.