It’s a cold Sunday night and my brain is malfunctioning with a migraine, again.
I can’t complain. I’m told I’m lucky because my body gives me a ‘stop what you’re doing and take your tablets now or else’ feeling; a 15-minute window before my migraine really hits; an increasingly vigorous sharp pain that starts on one side of my head. That ‘incoming pain’ alert was sounded about four hours ago. I caught it in time and I’m currently in a limp state of remission.
I’ve lived with migraines for over 31 years now. My first migraine memory was when I was age six in kindergarten. We were on a school excursion to Old Sydney Town and back then, our school uniform didn’t include hats. Having been in the sun all day and feeling a bit yucky with brain pain, I simply informed my teacher that: ‘I'm getting a migraine. You have a few minutes left to give me some tablets and then I need to go to sleep’. She scoffed at the idea of a child's migraine, thought I was complaining of a headache and disregarded me. Lucky for her, she sat rather close to me when I projectile vomited on the bendy-bus ride home, before fainting with pain in her lap (did I warn her or did I warn her?)
Headaches Australia estimates that a total of three million Australian men, women and children currently live with migraines.
The truth is kids do get chronic migraines, not just headaches, and I was one of them. Headaches Australia says around three to seven per cent of all children get migraines.
However, migraines become more prevalent with increasing age, being twice as common in mid-teens than those under 10. From adolescence on, migraine is more common in girls than boys, possibly because of hormonal influences. The World Health Organisation (WHO) adds that migraines are twice more common in women than men and mostly affects those aged between 35 to 45 years.
Headaches Australia estimates that a total of three million Australian men, women and children currently live with migraines. In fact, migraine is such a common neurological condition around the globe, it’s been declared as an intermittent disability by WHO.
“Migraines are a debilitating, intermittent condition of varying intensity between those suffering migraines and between the various frequencies of migraines,” says secretary general of the Brain Foundation, Gerald Edmunds. “They are a complex thing.”
WHO explains that migraines are “caused by the activation of a mechanism deep in the brain that leads to release of pain-producing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head”.
Genetics is often also blamed for migraines but scientists believe epigenetics – lifestyle and environmental factors – might differentiate between one sibling who has the condition and the other being migraine-free. Still, there is no cure and little is known about why triggers differ between people or why your migraines swing between mild episodes to those that feel like a painful alien reconstruction of your brain.
Whatever the reason, my migraines (not headaches) vary between two characters. The first is passive: triggered ‘sometimes’ by consuming too much caffeine, not sleeping enough, staying in the sun too long, eating foods with too many preservatives, or doing something my body wants to reject that day. Edmunds says doctors still don’t specifically know why the causes vary within a person or between people. I just wish they’d get a tonne of research funding, hurry up and find out.
The other version of my migraine is active. It’s aggressive. It’s violent. I can’t control it. Often egged on by my hormones, it captures my brain and releases me when it is finished playing with my nervous system. I take preventative medications every four hours until its grip is gone, cancel my plans and try to rest in a dark, cool and quiet place.
But when prevention doesn’t work and my special window is missed, both types of migraines become equal in severity as they continue to run their evil course. A migraine, going hard, feels like someone has reached their fists into my head. With a tight grip on one side of the brain, they are squeezing and pounding the muscle, and forcing me into an excruciating fight against the chronic stabs. I may vomit from the pain for around one to six hours. But the end of the vomiting usually signals the end of the migraine.
I remember a former boyfriend witnessing my migraine run its course for the first time. As I was hugging the toilet bowl, crying and with each wave of intense pain, I lifted the majority of my body off the cold concrete as I fought the pain (mind you, I have no upper body strength), before throwing myself back to the ground, releasing the fight with my head buried in the cistern. I remember his airs of concern, thinking I was going to rip the toilet bowl from the floor. My reply to him in between fits was ‘don’t worry. It’s just my migraines. Once I finish spewing, the pain will go and I’ll be asleep.’ I gladly recall the sick satisfaction of knowing that, in seeing my episode, he finally realised the difference between a headache and a migraine.
As Edmunds explains, “a migraine is different to a headache because it’s disabling. You can’t do ordinary things when you have a migraine where, perhaps you can still carry on with a mild headache”.
Even still, I don’t class myself as a sick person because I have migraines but I do recognise that when they hit, they are disabling. They are a really painful ‘thing’ that happens occasionally. I know the triggers and try to catch them in time. When that doesn’t work, I have a treatment routine down pat to speed up my recovery, stop vomiting (sipping on sugared water helps) and numb the pain (I spread Vicks or lavender oil spread all over my face). I’ve learned to meditate and stop to recover.
I also see migraines as my body’s way of saying ‘slow down’ or ‘you are out of equilibrium’. These days they are much more rare than they were in my teens or 20s so when I do get them, I stand to attention and review my lifestyle activities or current health status.
"A migraine is different to a headache because it’s disabling. You can’t do ordinary things when you have a migraine where, perhaps you can still carry on with a mild headache."
Edmunds jokingly reminds me that a migraine might also be a pain-related claim to fame: “Serena Williams gets migraines and when she doesn’t have them, she is one of the best tennis players in the world. Einstein also got migraines, although he probably didn’t work out the theory of relativity with one”.
“The only good news is about migraines is they are not fatal,” he explains. “If you keep yourself as fit as you possibly can and you know how to deal with your episodes when they hit, then you get on top of it again when they are done.”
On that note, I’m off to climb mountains and achieve greatness during whatever length of time exists between now and my next migraine performance.