Vomiting, Dizziness and Crippling Anxiety: Women Describe Living With Severe Migraines
Imagine having a health condition that could leave you feeling completely debilitated at any minute - forced to cancel plans, miss work and sit in a dark room. Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it?
But that's the reality for as many as one in seven of the population globally. Despite their prevalence in modern society, migraines are still commonly dismissed as nothing more than a "bad headache" by many.
In reality, this couldn't be further than the truth. Presenting themselves through visual disturbance, vomiting, dizziness and vertigo, they're the highest cause of disability among those aged between 15 and 49, and more than 90 per cent of people with these symptoms physically cannot work or function normally as a result.
Not only that, according to new research from the National Migraine Centre conducted earlier this year, nearly 83 per cent of migraine sufferers claim their mental health has suffered as a result of the condition.
As many as 64 per cent have experienced depression, 55 per cent have experienced anxiety and - most shockingly - a staggering 22 per cent have experienced suicidal thoughts or self harmed when suffering.
The exact cause of migraines is still unknown, but according to the NHS, they're thought to be triggered by "abnormal activity temporarily affecting nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain". Suggested triggers can be anything from hormones to stress to diet, as well as a change in physical health or medicine.
We spoke to three women who have first hand experience of migraines to shine light on just how severe they can be for Migraine Awareness Week 2019...
'I felt like someone was crushing my soul in half"
Samantha Morton, 26, first started getting migraines after suffering from post concussion syndrome following a car accident, and her life has never been the same since.
Her symptoms mean she's always tired, and regularly suffers from anxiety and depression. Speaking to Pretty 52, the shop assistant from Rotherham said: "I just don't feel normal. Everyday I wake up in pain, sometimes the pain is so severe I can't even leave my bed so then I beat myself up about it thinking I'm lazy or bad for not being able to do my normal activities.
"When my migraines were at the worst I felt like someone was cracking my skull in half, I couldn't stop screaming and shaking, rolling around my bed shouting out just wanting it to stop.
"I felt like I was in the middle of a tortuous horror movie and I was the only victim."
As a result of her migraines, Samantha had to call in sick to work regularly, and even lost her first job at a local paper despite having worked hard to get a journalism qualification. She recalled: "I lost my dream job because my migraines incapacitated me, and that's a tough pill to swallow.
"Being fired is never easy, but from somewhere you actually wanted to be for something out of your control is even harder and my mentality took a huge hit."
It's not just Samantha's work life that has been affected, as in the past, she also credits her migraines for ending a relationship, explaining that her ex would get irritated when she cancelled on dates and activities.
This lack of understanding went on to make Samantha scared of telling future partners about her migraines incase she wasn't taken seriously - although luckily she's since found a partner who understands and supports her.
In a bid to tackle her migraines, Samantha spent six years visiting various doctors and hospitals, and tried numerous treatments from naproxen and anti-inflammatory painkillers to beta blockers.
But eventually, she developed such a high tolerance to painkillers that for her, Botox injections - carried out by a specialist nurse - are the only temporary solution that have helped to reduce the severity of her symptoms.
"Botox hasn't cured me and to be honest I don't think I will ever be cured," she said. "But it has reduced the severity of my migraines enough for me to start living a more normal life and has taught me how to manage my pain."
"I always worry that people think I'm being over-dramatic"
Rose Gerrard, 24, begun getting migraines when she was in her late teens - but given the long family history of the condition on her father's side they were never a surprise to her.
"When my migraines are at their worst all I want to do is take my brain and eyes out of my head and sit in a dark, quiet room and sleep until the next day," the Leeds born illustrator and graphic designer told Pretty 52.
"The pain is pretty intense. It makes my whole body feel heavy and I have a constant throbbing behind my eyes and a sharp pain buzzing around my entire head. I also nearly always feel nauseous and I struggle with talking in whole sentences as I forget certain words."
In the past, migraines have negatively impacted both Rose's work and personal life, and while both her colleagues and loved ones have always been supportive, she's often left feeling anxious that they don't understand the severity of her symptoms.
"Because migraines aren't visible to everyone else, it creates an anxiety that people don't understand, especially if someone has never experienced migraines themselves," she explained. "I always worry that people in my life think I'm being overdramatic."
In a previous relationship, despite her boyfriend being "pretty understanding," Rose could sometimes see his frustration when she had to cancel plans or go home early, and she still worries when she cancels on friends that they'll think she's just making excuses.
"I'm lucky because my work are very understanding about needing time off, and I think it's just my own anxiety that makes me feel like they think I'm being overdramatic," she continued. However, Rose does worry that her migraines could sometimes be getting in the way of her performance.
"If I've had a particularly stressful day at work it can build up into a migraine which means I have to go home or not come in the day after," she said. "I'm lucky as this has only happened a handful of times, but if I've had a migraine I always get what I call migraine hangover, meaning the next day I'm always foggy and feel really low in energy."
For Rose, it took a long time to work out the triggers of her migraines before she could ease the symptoms.
The contraceptive pill massively boosted the frequency of her migraines, and when she came off this after a year, they decreased dramatically from four days of the week to around twice a month.
"The way I manage my migraines is figuring out what causes them. It's taken me years but I've realised that eating certain foods can trigger them, as well as stress and over-exhaustion. I can also sometimes tell as soon as I wake up if I am going to get a migraine that day. I can tell if I wake up feeling particularly groggy and have a slight headache," she said.
"Stress is the hardest trigger to avoid and I still haven't figured out ways to prevent this. If I could offer advice to other migraine sufferers it's to work out your personal triggers, as everyones are different. And also, if you're suffering them more than once a week to speak to your GP."
"I live in fear that a migraine will attack"
London based dietician Charlie Watson, 31, first remembers having a migraine at just eight years old, and has grappled with living a normal life while dealing with them ever since.
Her symptoms manifest by making her feel dizzy to the point of falling over and even causing her to vomit - not to mention the social anxiety that stems from having to miss plans, particularly when she was younger.
"As a teenager and 20-something I used to worry a lot about being a party pooper because I had to go to bed," she told Pretty 52. "I've had to miss events, or sit at weddings with sunglasses on inside the marquee considering leaving early."
Charlie's migraines come on so suddenly and unexpectedly that they are always at the back of her head. Recalling her migraines at their worst, she said: "[I felt] hopeless and frustrated. I just had no idea when they would hit, how bad they would be and how long they would last."
Things became so bad that Charlie was even left panicked ahead of her own wedding day just in case a migraine hit. And it wasn't just special occasions that were a worry - she also regularly had to work from home because her symptoms were so bad she physically couldn't get on the tube to make it into the office.
While Charlie's friends and family have learnt to "get" her migraines, and they have improved over the years, she admits that they still control many aspects of her life.
"I live in fear that a migraine will attack on big important days, and I'm nervous that when I have kids that I won't be able to look after them," she poignantly admitted.
Like Samantha, Charlie now credits Botox injections for helping to tame her migraines, but she tried osteopathy, acupuncture, a chiropractor and beta blockers too. She also claims quitting the corporate world helped to ease her symptoms.
"My advice would be keep trying/pushing for answers, find medication that works for you and look beyond traditional medicine," she advised. "Botox, Osteo, massage, float tanks - whatever it takes to find something that works for you".
What should you do if you think you're suffering from migraines?
- Painkillers- In many cases, paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen, can help to reduce then symptoms of migraines if taken at the first sign of an attack
- Anti-sickness and Triptan medication- If normal painkillers aren't working, your GP may prescribe you Triptans - a specific painkiller tailored to migraines - if needed. These can be administered as injections, nasal sprays or tablets. Your doctor might also advice you take anti-sickness medication, known as anti-emetics.
- Acupuncture- Alternative medicine should also be looked at if traditional meds aren't working. Acupuncture involves using needles to stimulate certain points in the body and many migraine sufferers swear by it.
- Daith piercing- Piercing the inner most cartilage of the ear has, in some cases, been successful in easing the impact of migraines. This is supposed to replicate the effects of acupuncture, targeting a particular pressure point to alleviate symptoms.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation- A relatively new method to treat migraines, TMS involves "holding a small electrical device to your head that delivers magnetic pulses through your skin." Studies have shown this can reduce migraine symptoms in some cases.
- Botox- A brand of botulinum toxin, Botox has been proven to alleviate some migraines by "getting into the small nerves that carry the pain from the head to the brain," according to the National Migraine Centre. "This reduces the amount of chemicals released from the nerve ending and therefore interrupts the feedback pathway that perpetuates migraine and headache."
- Stress reduction- While its easier said than done, stress is a common trigger of migraines, and so tackling this at the core is a great place to start. Seeing a therapist or avoiding difficult or stressful situations when you feel a migraine coming on can be hugely beneficial.
As migraines are still being researched, treatments and lifestyle changes are always being suggested, so you should always speak to your GP first and foremost.
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