Mary, a vivacious office worker, peers at the document she holds. Parts of the page suddenly appear blank. Then, flashing pinpoints of light dance before her eyes, escalating into a surreal display of zigzag lines and bizarre geometric patterns. Within minutes, Mary can hardly see. Realizing what is happening, she quickly swallows a small capsule that is designed for just this sort of emergency.
Mary suffers from migraine, a condition that differs from simple headache in several ways. For example, unlike random headaches, migraines follow a recurring pattern. Also, the condition is severe enough to make the sufferer abandon normal activities.
The symptoms of migraine? The pain throbs and may affect only one side of the head. The sufferer may also become nauseating and unable to bear light. The attack can last anywhere from several hours to several days.
Although most people have occasional tension headaches, only 1 person in 10 suffers from migraine. More women are affected than men. Some cases are more severe than others, but most victims lose several days of work each year. Migraine causes loss of income and can adversely affect family and social life. Thus, the World Health Organization ranks it among the world’s 20 leading causes of disability.
Shortly before a migraine attack, some victims have such symptoms as cold hands, fatigue, hunger, or mood changes. Then, just before the headache starts, there may be dizziness, a buzzing sound in the ears, a pins-and-needles sensation, double vision, speech difficulty, or muscle weakness.
The causes of migraine are not completely understood, but it is thought to be a disorder of the nervous system that affects blood vessels in the head. The throbbing nature of the pain apparently corresponds to blood going through irritated vessels.
The journal Emergency Medicine says: “Patients with migraine inherit a uniquely sensitive nervous system, which can be disrupted by numerous life events, such as sleep deprivation, strong odors, traveling, skipping meals, stress, and changes in hormone levels.” People who suffer from migraine may also be susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety attacks, and depression.
HOW CAN YOU RELIEVE MIGRAINE?
You cannot change the nervous system you have inherited. But you may be able to prevent migraine attacks from being triggered. By keeping a diary, some have been able to identify certain foods or circumstances that provoke attacks.
Each person’s case is different. Mary discovered that her migraine attacks matched her monthly cycle. “Around mid-cycle,” she says, “any excess activity or stimulus –hard work, heat or cold, loud noise, even spicy food –would bring on a migraine attack. So I am for calm and moderation during this time.” Joyce, who has endured migraine attacks for more than 60 years, states, “I have found that oranges, pineapples, and red wine immediately provoke a migraine attack, so I avoid them.”
Identifying triggers is not easy because several factors usually combine to produce an attack. For example, on one occasion you may eat chocolate with no ill effect, but at another time it gives you migraine, perhaps because of an additional contributing factor.
Even if you are unable to identify or avoid things that trigger your migraine, there are other ways to reduce the possibility of an attack. Experts recommend trying to maintain a regular pattern of sleep seven days a week.
If you want to sleep later on the weekend, they recommend that you get up at the usual time, do something for a few minutes, and then return to bed. A change in caffeine consumption can trigger a migraine, so try limiting yourself to two cups of coffee or two cola drinks per day.
Since hunger can provoke migraine, avoid skipping meals. Stress, so often a factor in migraine, is not easy to avoid, but you may be able to find ways to relax, perhaps by adjusting your schedule, reading books or listening to soft music.
WHAT TREATMENT FOR MIGRAINE
A wide range of options are available to help treat migraine. For example, sleep is one of the best remedies. Nonprescription painkillers may bring sufficient relief for the sufferer to be able to sleep.
In 1993, triptans, a new class of prescription medicines, because available, specifically for treating migraine. The Medical Journal of Australia called this “a major advance in therapy,” adding: “The advent of the triptans … was to migraine and cluster headache almost the equivalent of penicillin to bacterial infection!”
Migraine is not life threatening. So the cure for migraine does not save lives, as did the cure for infections. Nevertheless, triptans have brought dramatic relief to some who for years were regularly disabled by migraine. Patients must still make the changes in activities mentioned earlier, but some migraineurs have called triptans miracle drugs.
Still, all medicines have advantages and disadvantages. What is the bad news about triptans? First, each triptan tablet can cost as much as a meal in a nice restaurant, so their use is generally reserved for those with moderate to severe migraine. Also, triptans do not work for everyone, and some people have a health condition that makes it inadvisable even to try them.
While there is no known cure for the physical condition that migraine sufferers inherit. With the availability of new and improved migraine medications, there is no reason for patients to continue to suffer.