GROWING STRONG IN SPITE OF MIGRAINE

Sarah J. Blake

Migraine is perhaps one of the most misunderstood conditions I know about. It is commonly thought of as a type of headache, and it certainly isn't thought of as disabling.

It can be disabling, and it isn't just a headache. I have put this site together to help people understand migraine more fully and learn how to live with it and help loved ones live with it.

The Mystery Symptoms

Sarah at age 14 in a tree, working a ropes course

In 1986, I was chosen to participate in a program for gifted and talented youth at the Texas School for the Blind. At first, I balked, remembering my previous experience there. But perhaps things had changed. In any case, I was older now and more able to speak up for myself. Besides, I could take a cooking class.

I learned my way around campus easily using my cane as well as visual landmarks. I traveled from "my house," which I shared with four other girls, to the classroom building, the dining hall, the recreation center, and dormitories where friends were staying.

But one afternoon, I encountered a problem while traveling. I froze. If I had become lost, I would have been able to think and retrace my steps. But I could not retrace my steps--and I wasn't lost. I knew exactly where I was. I was approaching the bridge under the trees, on my way to the dorms to see friends. But I couldn't see the shadow of the trees. I couldn't see the contrast between the color of the bridge and the color of the sidewalk. I couldn't see the grass on either side of me. The sun was beating down on me, but I couldn't see it either. I couldn't see anything.

I turned around and headed back to my house, trailing the grass to locate the first two houses and then mine. I was frightened.

The episodes continued, but my complaints were viewed by staff and students alike as attempts to avoid responsibilities. I remember meeting with the counselor once. What was so wrong with me that I needed a counselor? We discussed my loneliness, but she said that I was obviously bright and well-adjusted.

Finally, someone took me to an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed the episodes as ocular migraine. Back at home, my retina specialist recommended an exam under anesthesia. I never had it. I was frightened, remembering an eye surgery I had had when I was eight. I couldn't bear the thought of the mask again.

That year I entered high school. I continued to experience periods of visual loss several times a week at school, usually lasting from two to four hours. I also occasionally became disoriented or fell down stairs. I ignored the disorientation and told myself I would have to be more careful on the stairs. However, I became concerned when I began to forget basic facts during oral presentations for my speech class and to notice misspellings in my writing.

My doctor began wondering if I was having seizures and sent me to have an EEG. It was normal. He suggested that perhaps a sleep-deprivation test would show the activity. It did not. The doctor recommended that I see a counselor.

There it was again. What was wrong with me? I was just a normal 14-year-old. I wasn't "stressed out".

An Answer

I continued to experience symptoms periodically for 14 years. I had more EEGs, most of which were all normal. The abnormality that was detected was dismissed as common in people who are blind. As I became older, the symptoms became more severe. I began to see flashing lights and to experience confusion and muscle weakness.

Finally, in the spring of 2000, I learned the answer. After yet another normal EEG, I saw a neurologist. "I think these are symptoms of classic migraine," he said.

Migraine? Migraines are headaches, I thought. I have those once in a while, but what about all these other symptoms?

As had become my custom, I searched for information about migraine on the Internet. Over the next two years, I slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and began to understand that the symptoms were, indeed, all related to migraine.

What Is Migraine?

Like me, most people associate the word migraine with headache. Headache is, indeed, the most recognizable symptom of migraine; but migraine is a complex neurological condition with a variety of symptoms. More information about the phases of migrain can be found in Teri Robert's article, "Anatomy of a Migraine".

Who gets migraine, and why? This is not an easy question to answer. Some explanations are provided in the article, "Who Gets Migraine? However, as is evident from the discussion, each person's migraines may be influenced by a variety of factors. The same foods may not provoke migraines from one person to the next or even in the same person from one day to the next. Furthermore, researchers do not always agree on what foods may provoke migraines or even whether foods do provoke migraines. As is explained in the article, "System Overload: A New Understanding of Migraines," migraines may occur when a sensitive brain is overwhelmed by too many factors. Migraine episodes are the response to this overload of stimuli. Some researchers believe that craving carbohydrates (such as chocolate) may be a symptom rather than a cause of migraine.

Was there any truth to the assumption that I was having migraines to avoid responsibilities? This is a complex question to answer. As is explained in the article, "Heading Off Migraine Pain," stress can aggravate migraines just as it can aggravate other physical conditions. Relaxation after stressful events can also induce migraine episodes. Psychiatric conditions can also mimic migraine and other similar conditions (such as epilepsy). However, it is unwise and may even be dangerous to assume that migraine is a response to stress or a mechanism used--even subconsciously--to avoid stress. Migraine episodes can themselves be very stressful events. Symptoms can be both frightening and disabling, especially if they do not respond well to treatment.

Treatment and Coping Strategies

Many treatments are available for migraine. Some medications work to prevent migraine episodes while others are useful during various phases of the migraine. An overview of these is provided in the article, "How Can Migraine Headaches Be Prevented?" (Well-Connected). Finding the right medication and dosage may take time, and all people with migraines do not experience complete relief using medications alone.

Migraine Triggers: A Key to Relief

Being aware of one's own migraine triggers is essential to achieving the greatest level of control possible. The above article provides some tips for rating the severity, and a second Well-Connected article provides some tips for keeping track of triggers.

When keeping track of triggers, it is important to be aware of how factors may be interacting to provoke migraine episodes. A good example of this is found in the article, "Causes of Migraine". Additional information about discovering how triggers work together is available in the article, "Drug-Free Migraine Treatment". If you suspect that foods may be provoking your migraines, the migraine prevention detox plan may be useful for you.

Other Interventions

In addition to medications, some activities and natural interventions may also be helpful. More information about some of these is available in the natural migraine treatment FAQ.

I have found that taking vitamin and mineral supplements seems to improve my migraine control. Information about the role of magnesium in the treatment of migraine is available in the article, "Migraine and Magnesium Deficiency". I also take taurine and l-tyrosine.

A few months ago, I began using essential oils in a nebulizing diffuser as well as making my own toiletries. Making my own toiletries means that I can eliminate many toxins from my body which enter through my skin when I use manufactured products. Essential oils also have therapeutic properties and have contributed to greater migraine control. If you would like to learn more about essential oils and making toiletries at home, please visit my herbs and oils page.If you use essential oils, please consider purchasing from Mountain Rose Herbs, a health and harmony company that offers a variety of oils, herbs, and accessories from diffusers to tea brewing supplies.

I have also started using feverfew extract in an herbal tea as a preventative. Click here for my tea recipe.

Finally, light therapy may be useful for migraine as well as other conditions. I haven't tried it, but I'm considering it. For more information, see the article, "Light Therapy for PMS, Migraine, and SAD".

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

I have never achieved complete control of the migraines. Some of the causal factors are out of my control. I have been able to find ways to minimize the symptoms and increase my chances of being able to participate in activities I enjoy. I have also learned the importance of allowing myself time to rest and be close to God's heart. In moments when the pain is excruciating or my brain and muscles are not functioning at their best, I learn to allow God and His people to minister to me. I soak in a warm bath, and then I sleep deeply and enjoy the warm presence of my dog and cat; and they seem to know when I need them to be especially close. If someone is with me, I relax during a shared time of prayer and the knowledge that someone is present as I endure the episode. I am learning not to see these times as times of pain but as times to renew my mind and spirit and to learn to experience the fullness of God's care. I do believe that He heals and that in His time He will heal the migraines. Holding on to my faith has been a challenge as I have dealt with worsening symptoms, but that faith is all that sustains me sometimes. If you'd like to read more about my journey of faith, please visit my faith issues page.

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