Migraines: Into The Upside Down

Collage by Gabby Beaumont

Last night I slept for 13 hours. The tiny pin-prick light of my computer charging was too much, somehow adding pressure at the back of my eyes. Behind my right eye, it seemed a big block of ice was forming, eating away at the neural tissue. Painfully freezing and lysing my cells. Like an intense brain-freeze that lasts for hours. My mouth felt watery, but I was nauseous and did not want food. All smells seemed too strong and it was as if the vapours would dissolve the membranes in my nose. I had a heat pack pressed on my face like always. I had planted my heavy, slow body in bed to wait out the storm — no control over how long that block of hard ice would take to form, or how long it would take to melt away. No idea how long it would be before I could reemerge. I think the demagorgon possessing Will in season two of Stranger Things may be a metaphor for a migraine. But like for Will, it can be hard to get people to take the condition seriously, so here is a brief intro for the uninitiated.

I write this in a “post-dromal” state — not of a seizure, thankfully, but of a brain disturbance of another nature. The day after a migraine, in the aftershock of such a disruptive event, I am unsure of exactly how my brain is tarnished — so forgive me for anything that may appear to be less than lucid. I certainly feel as though I am existing not quite within reality. There is a very faint white noise in my ears and my eyes have a slow, trailing tendency — although they are at last no longer insulted by the slightest beam of light. My body feels heavy as if it’s the day after a cruelly intense bout of exercise. My joints crack and pop a little too much as if resetting into their regular resting places. But otherwise, I am okay. I guess.

Migraines tend to creep up on me, with warnings that I deny at the time, and wish I hadn’t in retrospect. A visual aura is the first sign for many to exit the world and bury themselves in a silent quilt of darkness. I have only ever had one of these, and the best way I can describe it is like the experience of looking through glasses covered in water droplets. Looking directly at these glittery distortions of light would only cause them to dodge my glance and instead appear somewhere else at the periphery. An hour later I found myself drooling face down, in the middle of a lengthy nap in a public park in Singleton. I’ll be late home mum, sorry. Visual auras are the most common migraine experience (deal with by 90 per cent of migraine sufferers) but there are certainly other types. I suffer more from a sensorimotor aura on my right arm, back and neck. They feel especially feeble, and somehow as if the muscles are tight and as if the joints are loose. I also think I become more tolerant to hot temperatures. Often, I find myself writhing around a bit in the shower to deal with the numbness without scalding myself.

Researchers debate about the entire spectrum that spans between brain hyperactivity to brain depression. The inheritance may be linked to biological factors. For instance, people with higher blood pressure are less likely to experience migraines. People with asthma are more likely. People with migraines are more likely to have kids with asthma. Migraine sufferers are at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke — this is particularly true for women. Women that experience migraines and visual auras are advised against hormonal birth control containing oestrogen because that increases the risk of stroke even further. Interestingly, oestrogen is linked to migraines for many women. The prevalence of migraines in women becomes triple that of men only after puberty, when oestrogen production increases. Many women even suffer migraines linked to their menstrual cycle. Not only are they bleeding out of their vagina while their uterus is imploding into a black hole, but as a bonus they also get to feel like someone has put a nail gun to their temple and casually fired off a few rounds. Cruel, cruel world.

Speaking of triggers, migraines have them too — though they are a lot harder to pinpoint. For example, alcohol consumption is linked to migraines, but it is also linked to stress, and stress is linked back to migraines. So maybe downing a bottle of red in stress is what starts that pounding in your skull — do note, I’m not talking about the entirely different beast that is a hangover. Certain chemicals in particular drinks, such as histamine in red wine, trigger a different chemical cascade to the one you had before you began drinking. For most people, however, emotions running high even without a bevvy can trigger a migraine. The chemicals released by the body during stress and excitement dilate blood vessels and cause muscle tension but it is often until the let-down phase following these emotional events that the migraine rears its demonic face. For those averse to the gym, you may be relieved to know that an excuse awaits you. Strenuous physical activity can also trigger an episode, especially when accompanied by heat or dehydration. No worries, you think, I’ll just climb through that cool mountain air. You may want to think again, as low oxygen tension at high altitudes can also send a migraine sufferer stumbling home. Changes in your sleep pattern are yet another tiresome culprit. Not just sleeping too little, but also catching too many zzz’s might, alas, let a migraine out of the gates.

I have been to many doctors, and when I say that I experience migraines most accept this and move onto other matters without questioning further. I was prescribed the pill as a teenager without being asked whether I get migraines, only later to discover my decreased risk of pregnancy was accompanied with an increased risk of stroke. I was horrified that I hadn’t been asked when the potentially life-ending association between these two things is so established, and given there are other birth control options that don’t carry such clear warnings.

I wonder why something so debilitating doesn’t raise automatic concern for further investigation when you inform a GP. Why do they not consider it important enough to ask if you are on medication for it? Why do you not need to get a brain scan at some point in your life to ensure there isn’t something more sinister? Why are they not looking routinely for causes? Maybe actually talking to sufferers could generate more information and ideas about why and how they happen. And most importantly, maybe these conversations could lead to some more effective treatments.

There are some medications, don’t get me wrong, but it is a little ramshackle and ineffective. At least a quarter of people who would benefit from ongoing preventative medication are never offered it. And at least half of the current acute or abortive treatments (designed to stop an attack once it is in motion) are considered ineffective. I also wonder whether this isn’t one of those instances where something is put down to being “women’s business”. Not to discredit the many men experiencing migraines, but being outnumbered three to one by people with ovaries may somehow make it seem like less of a concern to a room full of old dudes deciding the next direction for their pharmaceutical research. Just a part of getting periods perhaps? It’s just like hormones and stuff. It is hard to imagine from the outside how it feels from the inside, so if there is some sexism involved those six per cent of men are being dragged along for the ride with the 18 per cent of women.

In other words, migraines are easy to minimise if you have never experienced them. Just a headache, drink some water and you will be fine. Yeah Will, drink some water, just wait the demagorgen out, you will be fine. All the while the world collapses into darkness. We are flipped into the upside down, and it is completely invisible to you. We need more effective treatment because unfortunately there is no Eleven here to save us. Because unfortunately, close to 24 hours after I felt this migraine coming on I am still in bed. I’ve got other things to do, but here I am, still waiting for my brain to properly thaw.