“I curl up in a ball most nights in such severe pain I’m crying,” wrote Lewis. For five years, the 21-year-old had been suffering from gut-wrenching headaches.
Lewis, like many other people, was dealing with severe head pain three to five times a week. Some episodes lasted mere minutes but others lingered into hours and even days.
Almost everyone alive has had a headache from time to time. Dehydration is often the culprit in these cases. Drinking water and eating some salt may be all it takes to calm a throbbing head.
But a migraine is a different medical condition with wide-ranging symptoms. The main feature is a very painful headache. That may be accompanied by disturbed vision, sensitivity to light, sound, and smells, and feeling sick and vomiting.
The Migraine Trust funds research, provides evidence-based information, campaigns for, and supports people affected by migraines in Britain. But painful, recurring headaches afflict individuals all over the world.
In fact, the Migraine Research Foundation says migraines are the third most common illness in the world. “Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households includes someone with a migraine.” That represents about 12 percent of the population of adults and children.
Migraines appear to be inherited. 9 out of 10 people who report a migraine have the condition in their family medical history.
A sudden migraine attack can be very upsetting – even frightening – and require the sufferer to lie still for hours. Episodes typically last from 4 to 72 hours with no symptoms in-between them.
The exact cause of migraines are unknown to medical science. They may be triggered by stress, lack of food, alcohol, hormonal changes in women, lack of sleep, and the environment.
If you experience headaches but aren’t sure if they are migraines, keep a log, journal, or migraine diary with the date, time of onset, duration, and physical complaints. This can help your doctor make a firm diagnosis.
There are many types of migraine. Some of these are:
- Chronic migraine – headache on more than 15 days per month
- Menstrual migraine – headache during menses
- Abdominal migraine – mostly seen in children
- Hemiplegic migraine – a rare condition involving temporary weakness on only one side of the body
- Migraine with aura – headache plus neurological symptoms, most commonly visual disturbances
- Migraine without aura – pounding headache that accounts for 70-90% of all migraines reported
The aura associated with migraine can create visual disturbances that include:
- Blind spots in the field of eyesight
- Colored spots
- Sparkles or stars
- Flashing lights before the eyes
- Tunnel vision
- Zigzag lines
- Temporary blindness
Migraine aura can present other symptoms, though, such as:
- Numbness or tingling
- Pins and needles in the arms and legs
- Weakness on one side of the body
- Vertigo (a feeling of spinning)
Migraine with aura affect 10-30% of people who experience migraine. The frequency varies from once a year to several times in a 12-month period.
Although it is usually impossible to predict when a migraine will start, there may be leading indicators. Experts divide a migraine attack into these five phases:
Premonitory or warning phase – Tiredness, craving sweet foods, mood changes, feeling thirsty and a stiff neck all can signal that a migraine is coming on. These feelings can last from 1 to 24 hours.
Aura (not always present) – As noted above, migraine aura has many different symptoms. It usually happens before a headache and can last from five minutes to an hour.
A headache or main attack stage – Head pain which can be severe, even unbearable, throbbing that is made worse by movement. A headache usually begins on one side of the head and almost always involves the back of the head. Sometimes, the pain is felt on both sides of the head or over the forehead. Nausea and vomiting may accompany this phase.
Resolution – Eventually, the excruciating pain fades away. Adults may find that an hour or two of sleep relieves a headache and many children improve after only a few minutes of sleep. Pain often fades if the sufferer gets sick or cries a lot.
Recovery or postdrome stage – Even after the pounding head had eased, the final stage of a migraine creates a feeling like an alcohol hangover that can last hours or days. Symptoms in this stage often mirror those from the first stage: someone who became nauseous with loss of appetite is likely to feel very hungry; likewise, a feeling of fatigue at the migraine’s onset may be reflected afterward as plenty of energy.
A cluster headache – is also extremely debilitating:
“Intense stabbing pain around one eye, usually accompanied by droopy eyelids with tearing and nasal congestion or a runny nose are symptoms of a cluster headache.”
About 1.2 people in 1000 suffer from suicide headaches. That’s about 375,000 people in the U.S. The pain lasts 15 minutes to three hours and can happen throughout the day many times. Patients may withdraw from their family and friends, preferring isolation. This impacts all aspects of daily life – work and play.
“One of the hard things to deal with is how other people react to my migraines,” confided Graham, after dealing with migraines for four years. “I get the full works; nausea, vomiting, aura, tight upper chest, impaired hearing, slurred speech, burning eyeballs, severe pain over my left eye and side of the face, loss of balance and occasional blackouts, my body shakes with the pain and I’m usually reduced to tears and screaming. Not good!”
There is good news for migraine and cluster headache patients. A company called Autonomic Technologies (AT) in Redwood City, California is developing a patient-powered tool that blocks sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) signals. Part of the autonomic nervous system, the SPG is a nerve bundle located in the face behind the nose that doctors link to the worst headaches.
Research has shown that stimulating the SPG “offers a reversible and adjustable option to control the debilitating pain of a cluster headache,” according to the AT website.
The ATI™ Neurostimulation System has two parts:
- The ATI Neurostimulator is smaller than an almond with a built-in electrical lead designed to fit different facial anatomy. The nerve stimulating device is surgically inserted through a small incision in the upper gum and placed at the SPG nerve bundle on the side of the head normally affected by headaches. There is no scarring after this permanent procedure.
- The Remote Controller is a hand-held device with simple therapy controls. When the patient feels a headache beginning, s/he places the remote controller on the cheek over the stimulator implant. The controller sends signals to the implant, causing it to stimulate the SPG nerves and block the pain-causing neurotransmitters. The patient stops treatment by removing the remote controller from the cheek, turning off stimulation therapy.
AT is conducting clinical trials. If you suffer from chronic cluster headaches, you may be eligible to participate in the Pathway CH-2 Study and help test the ATI Neurostimulation System.
Somehow, people with agonizing and unpredictable head pain manage to cope. Some even become philosophical about their condition. As migraine sufferer Nicholas shared:
“But I have to get on. Although it feels like a curse sometimes, it is my life. I have never broken a bone, I have been in love, and I have a wonderful family. I still try to live every moment to the fullest and experience everything I can. Life is worth it; it just hurts sometimes. And who knows, there might be a cure in my lifetime.”