Make the pain go away

Migraines don't have to be your headache

Migraines don't have to be your headache

November 24, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

First comes what I like to call the "ring of death," a circular patch of blurred vision that arrives 20 minutes or so before the migraine.

Technically known as an aura, it always appears in my left eye, making it hard to transcribe notes. The migraine will begin as soon as the ring of death goes away.

I learned the hard way why it's not a good idea to work through a full-blown migraine. Like many migraine sufferers, nausea and vomiting are two of my symptoms - making it hard when you're away on assignment.

Thankfully, my editors are sympathetic. And I am not alone.

Groups like the American Headache Society and the National Headache Foundation put the number of migraine sufferers between 28 million and 30 million Americans, roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population.


It's a common diagnosis at Antietam Health's Urgent Care centers at Robinwood Medical Center and on Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown, said Dr. Bhuvana Raja, director of Antietam Health Urgent Care.

The good news is that despite how much they hurt, you can make the pain go away.

"There are so many cool things out there," said Suzanne E. Simmons, executive director of the National Headache Foundation in a recent phone interview with The Herald-Mail.

The Chicago-based nonprofit has conducted several studies on migraines, with funding from drug companies.

What is a migraine?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health, there are four types of headaches: vascular, muscle contraction (tension), traction and inflammatory.

Migraines are the most common type of vascular headaches, according to the federal health agency, and are characterized by severe pain on one side or both sides of the head and upset stomach and, at times, disturbed vision.

Migraines come in two forms, Raja said - classic and common.

I suffer from the classic version, which means I get an "aura" - in my case, a blurred ring of vision - before the onset of the migraine. Other people might smell something funny, experience tunnel vision or feel a prickly sensation.

Whichever is your aura, it acts as a warning.

The American Headache Society estimates 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience migraines with an aura.

Unlike classic migraine sufferers, Raja said, people who suffer from common migraines don't get auras. The migraine arrives without warning, she said.

Triggers for migraines vary. It could be a smell, a reaction to light, hormonal changes or a variety of other things that trigger the migraine, Raja said.

Sometimes, it's impossible to pinpoint the trigger.

Other health care groups, such as the National Headache Foundation, suggest that migraines might be triggered by the brain.

I have yet to determine what causes mine.

Whether classic or common or otherwise, the migraines share the same characteristics - pulsating pain, nausea or vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound.

Once triggered, blood vessels constrict then dilate, pressing on the nerves and causing the migraine, according to the NHF.

Getting rid of migraines

Raja said over-the-counter drugs can mitigate the severity of the migraine, but they don't work for everybody. Avoiding triggers is another way to pre-empt migraines.

But when over-the-counter drugs don't work, and the first line of prescription medications fail, severe migraine sufferers might need narcotic painkillers to ease the symptoms, she said.

The NHF breaks down treatment into two kinds - acute treatments, designed to stop migraines in progress; and prophylactic treatments, medications designed to reduce their likelihood or impact.

Raja said studies have shown that certain blood pressure medications, anti-depressants and seizure medications are effective against migraines and that it's common practice for doctors to prescribe these drugs for such a use.

The NHF adds to that list drugs used to treat epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease.

Other new treatments, according to the NHF, include a battery-operated skin patch that allows migraine drugs to be absorbed into the body. There are also many treatments that don't involve drugs, such as acupuncture and relaxation techniques, Raja said.

Cayenne-pepper "soup," a totally made-up home remedy of chicken broth with a heavy dousing of cayenne pepper (an idea my mother's late cousin came up with) has worked during some of my migraines. In fact, the NHF mentioned the use of the capsaicin from cayenne pepper in a nasal spray as one of the latest forms of treatment available for migraines.

I am not endorsing the use of cayenne-laced chicken broth as effective treatment, but I do find solace knowing that there's medical help out there when I need it. No more sequestering myself to a dark, quiet place for four hours, waiting for the pain and nausea to go away.

On the Web: Places to learn more about migraines

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health,

National Headache Foundation, educational group for headache sufferers and physicians,

American Headache Society, a professional society of health care providers who study the treatment of headaches and face pain,

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