Louise O’Sullivan has suffered from severe migraine for years but she’s found a way to live with the debilitating condition …
My first experience of migraine was twelve years ago at age 20. I was about to board a plane to Scotland for a wedding when my vision became completely distorted and I had a numb sensation in my right hand. When you have no idea what is happening, naturally it’s daunting. Luckily my mother, who also has the condition, identified what it was.
Migraine is an incurable neurological condition which is classified by the World Health Organization as the seventh most disabling condition in the world. The myth that migraine is just a headache is exactly that, a myth. The reality is that migraine is an illness that requires constant maintenance. I often describe it as walking a tightrope. Balance is key and it takes a lot of refining to get to a place of stability.
For the first six years I was lucky that my migraine was very much episodic. I might get one or two a year. However, in late 2016, something changed. I began experiencing migraine far more frequently, to the point where I was getting symptoms daily. My GP sent me for an MRI to ensure everything was ok and thankfully it was, it was simply a case that my migraine had changed over time.
Symptoms and triggers vary for everyone but for me the most prominent symptoms include aura, a visual disturbance which happens prior to the headache, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound and sometimes a sense of disorientation. The aura consists of a flashing zigzag which moves around. I find the aura one of the most nauseating aspects of migraine. Once a migraine strikes, I need to find a quiet space until the visual aura passes. If I am out and about, this is my warning to get home. Vomiting, neck pain, tension in the jaw follow, finally the throbbing headache. Often symptoms happen all at once. Numbness in my hand is another; this seems to have dissipated over time.
A migraine can last anything from a few hours to days. Once I experienced an attack which lasted for seven days. During the seven–day bout, I insisted the blinds in the house remained closed. At one point I couldn’t look at any light, including the lights in the oven and fridge. Sunlight and the light from screens was intolerable.
Over time, I have discovered that knowledge is key. The more awareness I had of my condition and its possible triggers and effects, the more control it gave me. Although the exact causes of migraine are not well known, it is thought that changes in the chemicals and nerves in the brain play a part in the development of the condition. Women are three times more likely to experience migraine than men due to hormonal activity, but genetics and age can also have an impact. Many people associate triggers with dietary factors but environmental triggers, as well as sensory, hormonal, stress and musculoskeletal ones come into play. When learning about my triggers, I noticed I have one from all groups.
Weather changes affect my sinuses (environmental), bright lights and loud noises are uncomfortable for me (sensory), I can’t take the contraceptive pill (hormonal) and neck or shoulder pain is common for me (musculoskeletal). Stress, lack of sleep, certain foods like cheese, yogurt, sugary foods and onions are other triggers. With so many red flags you need to be aware of your trigger threshold – the number of triggers your body can tolerate without experiencing a migraine. If I experience two or three triggers in as many days, I might escape a migraine.
However, if I hit four or five triggers, I’ve passed my threshold and will almost certainly get an attack.
The other important thing to know is what type of migraine you have. Migraine with or without aura, migraine with aura and no headache, chronic, retinal, abdominal, menstrual and vestibular are just some other types. Monitoring your symptoms can help identify which type you have. I’ve experienced a few different types over the years including migraine with aura, migraine with aura and no headache, menstrual migraine and at the worst points, chronic migraine. Chronic migraine is when you experience 15 or more days in a month with migraine. Thankfully, I’m not at that point anymore.
If I hit four or five triggers, I’ve passed my threshold and will almost certainly get an attack.
Migraine significantly impacts my life. It has a detrimental effect on my self-esteem and my confidence. Migraine is isolating. People think you’re exaggerating and can’t possibly be that sick over a “headache”. There are times when I spend hours, if not days, in dark rooms. Times when I feel lonely and hopeless because I’m doing everything possible to manage this invisible condition yet still I suffer. Professionally, there are times when I miss significant amounts of work but I have an understanding employer who knows that my migraine is genuine. I sometimes miss events, because I am mid-attack or beacause I have to rest to help prevent one. Migraine also has an impact on those around you and on your relationships. It can be difficult and sometimes daunting to help someone when having an attack particularly when they’re frequent, something my boyfriend now fully understands. Migraine is debilitating, unpredictable and influences many aspects of my life.
To manage migraine, I need to be disciplined. As well as managing my triggers, I don’t drink caffeine or alcohol. I drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration and make sure I never skip meals. I never leave the house without snacks and a bottle of water along with my medication. I exercise moderately (too much strenuous exercise can also trigger migraine) and manage my stress levels. Walking, journalling, yoga and meditation are just some of the things that keep stress in check.
I take two medications. One is a daily preventative and the other I take once I feel an attack beginning. The combination seems to be working, but it has taken me years to get here. I also tried many alternative therapies including reflexology, acupuncture, osteopathy and physiotherapy. I find physiotherapy of great benefit and attending monthly sessions is my new self-care. Saying no to things, not overstretching myself and allowing my body and mind to rest is vital. It can be difficult at times but I count myself lucky. At worst I was suffering every day but now I can achieve weeks, or sometimes even months, of being migraine free.
How to Manage Your Migraines
-Keep a migraine diary. Write down the dates, times, duration and severity of each attack and what you think may have caused it. It will take time, but you should start to see patterns. You can then work to eliminate the triggers you can control.
-Look at alternative treatments. I’m a firm believer in healing via all channels and that can mean trying different therapies.
-Be compassionate with yourself. It’s a complex condition so take it easy on yourself and reach out for support. The Migraine Association of Ireland is a source of information and guidance.
-Attacks: pre–empt and plan for how to manage them. Carry water, a snack and medication with you, and schedule things with time in between so you can rest.
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.