How To Cope With Migraines & Still Have A Life, From Someone Who's Been There & Done It
I have suffered with migraines since my teenage years. At the time, I assumed that they were simply headaches caused by a bad diet and a lack of general hydration. But as I got older, left school, and entered the adult world, I realised that these headaches weren't going to go away with the addition of a few extra vitamins and minerals. Instead, I had to learn how to cope with migraines the hard way.
It's hard to remember exactly when I had my first migraine. But thanks to some weird selfies of my face afterwards, I do remember the first time the condition — which is characterised by super intense headaches that often cause tears — really made me worry. I was in secondary school being shouted at by a dictatorial P.E. teacher to keep running round that track until I collapsed. Or that's how I remember it, anyway.
My head was pounding before I even started the torturous exercise, continued as I got changed back into my school uniform, and kept on going until my vision blurred and I could no longer see my hands desperately trying to fasten the buckles on my kilt. Then I was sick in a bin.
It may not sound that dramatic, and admittedly it wasn't at the time, but this sole occasion made me realise how important it is to know how to deal with a migraine. In school, you're surrounded by friends. In work, the office is full of people who at least know your first name. But when you're an anonymous person in the middle of a crowd or walking down a street alone, it's an entirely different story.
People with migraines have a tendency to not be taken seriously. Whether it's the fact that as WebMD reports more women suffer from them (sexism warmed right up) or that society simply assumes that headaches can't be that bad, you may struggle to elicit sympathy from friends, family, colleagues, and even doctors.
There is no known cure for migraines — just a bunch of medications that were designed to treat other conditions and accidentally found to help migraine sufferers too. If you visit a doctor, you could be prescribed things like beta blockers or triptans, as the NHS explains. In other words, tablets intended for heart problems, seizures, and the like. (The list of ridiculously scary side effects written on the box is a tale for another day.)
Of course, I — like many others — like to think I know more than a trained medical professional so refused to see a doctor for years. Instead, I would perform the tried and tested ritual of shutting myself away in a dark room, removing any source of light and noise (including phones, TVs, and real life people), and going to sleep until the headache had subsided.
While it works, it's obviously not a great method for those who have regular migraines and actually want to leave the house. So what to do? First, you need to attempt to find the cause of your headaches. Sometimes, a migraine can be triggered by hormones and periods which you unfortunately cannot change, as Migraine Trust reports. But a lot of times, things like stress and diet can play a part in the condition's onset.
I decided to cut back on the amount of caffeine and dairy I was consuming. OK, so my hatred for coffee helped with the first part but I'm certainly partial to a bit (or quite a lot) of cheese every now and then. But cheese contains a compound called tyramine. And tyramine is renowned for its headache-causing abilities.
You may also want to try going teetotal or at least reducing the amount of alcohol you drink. Red wine is thought to be one of the worst drinks for people with migraines but I've found that almost any kind of alcohol doesn't do me any favours. After being put on strong medication (more on that later) for six months, I had to stop drinking full stop and now find that even the smallest amount of alcohol really isn't worth the ensuing pain and sickness.
Yes, you may find that people stop inviting you out at night because they assume that you've become boring but (a) that vision of a teetotal person is so outdated anyway, and (b) you get to spend your weekends actually enjoying the days, rather than sitting in bed nursing a hangover.
If your dietary changes still aren't giving you any relief, it may be time for a medical intervention. Tablets like Migraleve can be bought over the counter and work for some people. However, if you're getting migraines pretty regularly, doctors can prescribe preventative medication which you take daily over the course of a few months. Instead of getting rid of the headache once it's already started, these tablets work to stop it from happening in the first place — often by relaxing blood vessels and blood flow to the brain.
If I'm honest, this is the only thing that has worked for me so far. That and quitting my job. That may sound like a drastic change but switching from an environment where you feel out of control to one where you are firmly in command can do wonders.
I decided to go freelance and am well aware that this option is only a luxury for some. However, changing the level of stress in your life is seriously underrated when it comes to migraines. You could do something as simple as ask your boss for more flexible working or find a role that doesn't involve you having to take on three people's jobs at once.
Changing my entire daily routine has really helped the amount of headaches I get. OK, so the medication may have helped too but I've been off the tablets for a few months now and only occasionally get migraines, rather than the three a week I was previously suffering from.
Now, I try and force myself to go for a walk each day, instead of sitting in front of a screen for 12 hours' straight. I go to yoga classes to learn how to let go of all the small insignificant worries that flood my brain. I still don't drink enough water and have a terrible sweet tooth but am more aware of how I'm feeling. And if I do sense a migraine coming on, I know my best option is to tell the truth to the clients I'm working for that day and relax for a few hours, rather than suffering in silence and producing substandard work.
I'll be the first person to admit that a change of lifestyle can be super scary. But once you get into the swing of things, your mental and physical health can improve incredibly quickly. I'm not going to give up hope that a miracle cure for migraines is just around the corner. Indeed, a revolutionary new drug — which comes in the form of a monthly injection — could be available in the UK next year, The Sun reports.
But for now, I've managed to keep them under control. And that's all I could have wished for a couple of years ago.