I remember the first migraine I ever experienced. I was nineteen and working in a hospital laundry. I was standing and folding towels when suddenly my vision changed. It is difficult to describe, but it was distorted like looking through a glass bottle and everything in my peripheral vision had a green tint to it. Accompanying the vision changes was a massive, head-splitting headache like I’d never had before. Because I carpooled, I had to spend the rest of the day at work smelling the cleaning chemicals, feeling the heat from the dryers, the humid steam from the machines, and wanting to cover my head to get away from the bright lights and noise.
Luckily, I didn’t have another migraine for several years. I’m not sure what triggered my first one, but after having them regularly for about ten years now I have been able to correlate my migraines to my hormonal changes during each month and also to the weather. Now I can tell when one is coming on because I experience an aura, or feeling preceding a migraine; I get a tight feeling at the base of the back my head and the top of my neck, as well as sensitivity to light and nausea. Sometimes I also see what I can only describe as sparkly silver stars or fireworks crossing my line of vision.
If you’ve never had a migraine, consider yourself lucky. If you have had one, you know how painful and debilitating they can be. Migraines affect your job, your relationships, your mental health, and so much more.
I hate that my frequent migraines not only make me feel awful, but they make me feel like a bad mom because I have a shorter temper, less patience, I don’t want to play or sing or read or watch TV. Just because I have a migraine the world doesn’t stop, I have to continue to be a mother and take care of my family, which is hard.
I hate that my job and my professional image suffers when I have a migraine. I’m sure it looks odd and people wonder how much work I can really do in the near-dark. I hate asking to leave to go home and try to recover. I always feel like my coworkers or supervisor think, there goes Sarah again, going home with a “headache.”
There are no cures for migraines, only treatments and medications that can provide relief or help prevent one from occurring. According to the Migraine Research Association, 39 million Americans and 1 billion people worldwide suffer from migraines.
Some people know exactly what triggers their migraines- it may be red wine, hormones, MSG, strong scents, or certain foods. Others have no idea if they have a specific trigger.
I have tried multiple medications to combat my migraines and have finally found one that will generally relieve my symptoms within half an hour. Cambia is peppermint tasting powder that you mix into water and drink; it is fast absorbing and will often get rid of my symptoms with only one dose, although I still sometimes have migraines that require multiple doses of medication or a combination of medications. I have tried pills, shots, pens, all sorts of drugs.
In addition to my medication, I have found several other things that don’t give me full relief but do help when a migraine strikes, and I’d like to share them with you today.
1. Use a medication
I know I already mentioned medication but this is the biggest factor in relieving my migraines. Often it is trial and error to find one that works for you, so working closely with your physician is necessary. Be aware that many drugs are expensive and may not be covered by your insurance’s formulary. Cambia was going to cost me $700.00 out of pocket before my neurologist wrote a letter and appealed the coverage, stating medical necessity. After the insurance company gave a prior authorization it was still going to cost me $300.00, which I wasn’t about to pay. Before my insurance’s formulary had changed I had been paying around $37.00. My neurologist and a friend who has migraines recommended a mail-order pharmacy where I can get the medication at a significant discount. If you find a drug that works for you but is not affordable, you should look into mail-order options.
2. Take caffeine
Some over the counter medications marketed for migraines are made of a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen combined with a large dose of caffeine. I do not take these OTC meds myself, but some people say they work for them. I do however try a cup of coffee or strong tea when I feel my migraine start and I take my medication.
3. Try something cold
A frigid shower or ice packs applied to my head and neck will sometimes lessen my pain. The cold will contract blood vessels and in theory, help make a migraine better. This doesn’t help everyone. I will lay in bed with a cold soda can behind my neck and an ice pack on the most painful part of my head.
4. Use darkness
If you are experiencing sensitivity to light, it is helpful to move to a dark room. At work, I have lights that will dim, so I often turn the lights down. I also have adjusted the brightness and contrast on my computer monitors, which does help, but usually, I cannot stand to stare at my computer screen while I am feeling ill. I have been laughed at for sitting in the dark with my sunglasses on in front of my computer, but I think you should do whatever works for you. When I am at home in bed I will wear a sleep mask to keep the light from bothering me.
After I’ve dosed myself with medication I will try to sleep if possible. Most of the time I will wake without my migraine. I do sometimes have migraines that last for more than a day, but sleep tends to lessen the intensity of my pain.
6. Be quiet
Noises tend to bother me when I have a migraine, so if I am at home I try to be in my room alone and if I can’t be, I wear earplugs. My kids don’t understand how the noise can hurt my head and do typical kid things like squealing, laughing, yelling, etc.
7. Get a massage
I have had migraines that lasted for weeks and one of the only relieving factors was a professional massage focusing on my shoulders, neck, and head, which allowed many of my stiff and contracted muscles to relax.
8. Go to the chiropractor
I have only been to a chiropractor once in my life because they’ve always somewhat scared me. In movies you always see bad guys twisting someone’s neck and killing them, and it has always been my fear that if I were to go to a chiropractor that would be my fate. The last time I had a chronic migraine I finally gave in and went for an adjustment. The moment he felt my neck he said, “No wonder you’re having migraines. You should have come to me sooner.” After my adjustment, I had immediate relief.
9. Get away from scent triggers
Most scents do not bother me, but I stay away from places like Bath & Body Works. The combination of so many chemical smells gives me an instant migraine. If I test a perfume in a department store I always use the little paper strips, rather than spraying myself, that way if the perfume affects me I can just walk away from it. Once I sprayed myself with perfume in a mall and felt terrible until I could get back to my hotel room to shower and store my clothes in a plastic garbage bag.
10. Relax as much as possible
Relaxing is never easy when you feel awful, but I try anything I can to relax my body to try to feel better. Things, like wearing comfortable pajamas and adjusting the room temperature or using a fan, are where I start.
11. Use your VNS
I have epilepsy and have a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) to help control seizure activity. The VNS gives me a shock at set intervals throughout the day and I can also use a magnet to give myself a longer, stronger shock if I feel my seizure aura or have a seizure. When had my last VNS generator (battery) replaced, the Medtronic rep that was at the hospital for my surgery told me that using the VNS is an off-label treatment that may help with migraines. I haven’t noticed that it helps too noticeably, but I use it each time in the hope that it will make a difference with my pain.
If you have migraines, work with your healthcare provider until you find a treatment that is beneficial to you.
I hope that some of the tips above help you. If you have any other strategies that you use to combat a migraine, I’d love to hear all about it- leave me a comment.