I’ve written a lot on my blog about the migraines I get (see all the posts here). I was diagnosed with chronic migraine nearly two years ago when I started seeing a specialist migraine doctor. I’d been on numerous medications over the years, some of which worked for a while and then didn’t, others which didn’t touch the sides at all.
I’ve experienced daily headaches which are in the background, they’re annoying and make it difficult to concentrate but I can just about get by. I’ve experienced the more moderate ones, which are a thumping in the head and may make me feel sick. I’ll probably continue working through them but will likely cancel any social plans I have. I’ve had ones that start with aura (which start with visual or sensory disturbances) – for me that’s bright, flashing lights or fuzzy lines across my vision. The kind that make you pray you can get home and into bed quickly. And I have them without aura too, they’re headaches that start off mild and then gradually get worse and worse until they burst into a fully grown, severe migraine.
These are the kind that I have now. I have a background migraine (a mild migraine which is worse than a normal headache, but I can cope with) every day. Sometimes I have moderate days where I’ll need to take painkillers, drink lots of water and ensure I don’t push myself. Not easy when you are trying to plan your day or week – including a workload with deadlines that won’t stop for anyone, a house that contains boxes which still need unpacking and rooms that need decorating, a baby on the way to prepare for and social plans with friends or family that I don’t want to let down. And that’s before you add in all the normal stuff – cleaning and tidying the house, food shopping, cooking and washing up, laundry, bills etc etc. Phew! You get the picture.
And then there are days where the migraines are severe. The kind where you can’t do anything except lie in a pitch black, silent room with a pillow over your head because any light or sound is enough to make you want to rip your head off. You feel like a sledgehammer is repeatedly smashing you in the skull. And you feel like you need to throw up every time you turn your head an inch. Essentially, you’re a prisoner in your own body. You could stay like this for hours or days and your only respite is sleep. Often you can’t even pick up your phone to cancel plans you may have had. It’s too late for that.
It’s fair to say I have a lot of experience in this area.
And it’s only been over the last few years that I’ve started to find new medications and treatments that work for me and begun to identify my migraine triggers.
Understanding your triggers
I think identifying the things that may trigger your migraines is one of the best places to start. Prevention is better than cure. Here are some common triggers:
- A change in routine
- Too much or too little sleep
- Environment (ie a change in weather, strong smells or flickering lights)
- Certain foods (common triggers are red wine, chocolate and cheese – all the good stuff!)
- Missing meals
- Poor posture
- Strenuous exercise
As you can see, there are a lot of potential triggers. But once you identify what your triggers are, you can try to find ways to avoid them or at least prepare for them. This may be easier than it sounds.
If your trigger is red wine and cheese, then you can cut them out of your diet. I know, sorry! But if your trigger is travel, this may be a little more tricky. You may need to travel for a work trip or to go on holiday – this kind of travel is unavoidable. Travel is definitely something which contributes to mine. Although you perhaps can’t cancel your travel plans, you can prepare yourself for it by making sure you stay hydrated, eat regularly and have plenty of rest. Avoid stress by allowing yourself plenty of time to get to your destination. If you’re on a long haul flight, take earplugs, an eye mask and a comfortable neck pillow so you can get some shut eye.
Keep a migraine diary to track the days and times you get a headache or migraine. You can note anything you think may have triggered it as well as plot days you feel sick or are sick, periods and medication you take.
Finding a treatment that works
I’ve tried so many different things and there are still so many more options out there for me, but it’s often difficult to know where to start. For one, you need to test one treatment at a time – if you try lots of things at once how do you know which one is making a difference? And of course you don’t want to waste your money trialling something, especially if you have to trial it for a long time, only to find out it didn’t work. It’s tough, I know.
But I think it’s really important to talk to your GP, if you haven’t already, and ask to be referred to a specialist if need be. I go to the National Migraine Centre, which is a charity based in London. I’ve been going there for two years now and I’m really happy with my doctor and the treatment I’ve received.
When I first started going there I was taking a medication which used to work but had stopped working for me. My doctor explained that your migraine pattern can change over time, so what used to work may stop having an impact and you may need to try something else. I did find a combination of new medications that massively reduced the frequency and intensity of my severe and moderate headaches, and gave me a few headache-free days each month, but when Rob and I decided we wanted to start a family I had to stop the medication as it wasn’t safe through pregnancy.
So after weaning myself off I began a programme of greater occipital nerve blocks, which I still have every three months or so. They are injections of local anaesthetic and steroids around the nerves in the back of the head. They’re sore but they do help. They haven’t stopped my migraines but again, they’ve reduced the frequency and intensity of the worst ones. And best of all they’re safe throughout pregnancy. I’m not advocating this treatment for anyone, it may not be suitable for all but it works for me, combined with a low dose of a medication.
What I’m now concerned about is that I need to reduce the medication I’m taking ready for the birth of the baby. This combined with stress and sleepless nights could be disastrous. If I’m stuck in a dark room throwing up for days or weeks on end I’ll be of no use to anyone, least of all the baby who will be relying on me for breastfeeding (which I’m hoping to do if I can) and general care.
So I’ve also started acupuncture for my migraines. I began by having acupuncture every week, just to see how it works for me and now I’m going every three weeks or so with the intention of probably going once every two or three months eventually. I’m really pleased to say that so far I can really notice a difference in my migraine diaries. I think I’ve only had one severe migraine in that period of time and there have been far more mild than moderate days since I’ve been having treatment. So I’m really positive that even when I’m on my lower medication when the baby is born, the acupuncture combined with the nerve blocks should see me through. Of course, it’s really important I get lots of rest and support from Rob – we’re really going to have to work as a team – but I’m no longer feeling as anxious and stressed about it as I initially was. I think I should just about be able to handle the tiredness that comes with a newborn (famous last words but as an insomniac I’ve long dealt with only having a few hours sleep at times – something I know also makes my migraines worse and which thankfully, my medication now helps with) but I won’t be able to handle the migraines that will come with the lack of sleep when I need to look after a newborn baby.
But fingers crossed, it won’t be as bad as I initially thought.
I hope this post is helpful for anyone else going through the same thing. I feel your pain, I know coping with migraine is not easy. But by identifying your triggers and talking with specialists, you’re making the first steps in taking back control of your life.
Please note I am not qualified to give any medical advice but wanted to share my experiences.
This is also not an advert but I would really recommend the National Migraine Centre – have a look at their website for more information about migraines and the services they can provide. I’d also recommend having a read of The Migraine Brain by Dr Carolyn Bernstein and Elaine McArdle which is really helpful in identifying triggers and advising how to avoid or prepare for them.