I've had migraines since I was about 12 years old. With the onset of puberty I've been cursed with them. And I do see them as a curse; I've asked myself the same question for years: why me?
The first time I had a migraine, I really thought I was going to die. The pain was excruciating. And the only way I would get any relief from the pain was when I was sick and then tried to sleep.
Even now, some 30-odd years later, I'm still getting them. And they seem worse than ever, particularly with how frequently I'm getting them.
And it's not like I haven't tried to get rid of them either – hormone injections, acupuncture, implants, daith piercings, migraleve….you name it, I've tried it.
My last resort has been a preventative measure – 20mg of Nortriptyline tablets once a day for the rest of my life.
I've been on them for over three months now and although I've seen a significant improvement in the frequency and duration of the migraine attacks, it hasn't rid them completely.
The annoying thing about my migraines is that they are triggered by lots of stimuli – musky smells, skipping meals, not enough sleep, periods, fluorescent lights, high (weather) pressure, dehydration and stress.
The worst culprits – and the ones guaranteed to give me a migraine without fail – are the hormonal time of the month and powerful scents.
And although I've learned to live with the migraines, I still feel like when I'm having an attack that I'd rather cut off my own hand if it meant that I didn't feel the pain in my head.
You should know that there are different types of migraine. Unfortunately, I've been given the short straw and suffer from the excruciating pain kind; give me an aura migraine any day and I'd be laughing. To be honest, I get those too, but they're not a patch on the acute pain migraines.
There are usually two different types of responses to migraines (a) People who also suffer from migraines and know exactly what you're going through and sympathise (b) Those who have never had a migraine and don't actually know anything about them.
So to all those people in the latter category, here are 7 of the worst things you can say to a migraine sufferer when they're having an attack – straight from the horse's mouth:
1. ‘Oooh, my aunt Pauline used to get migraines…'
Have a look at the person's face with a migraine. Does it look like they're interested in your auntie Pauline? Trust me when I suggest that you don't start telling any stories. The last thing a migraine sufferer wants to know (in the middle of an attack) is that your aunt gets them too. It doesn't help in making us feel better; we're in too much pain or discomfort to care about anyone else but ourselves. Ditch the stories and get them some help.
2. ‘I know how you feel…I get bad headaches too'
Don't assume a migraine is just a bad headache and certainly don't ever suggest this – it will only highlight how ignorant you are.
A migraine is a complex condition with a wide variety of symptoms. In my case, I get excruciating pain, usually on one side of my head and I feel the need to be sick.
I also need a dark room (I'm sensitive to light during an attack) and my smell sense is heightened, so any strong smells will make it much worse – usually it will just make me vomit.
3. ‘Come along after the migraine has gone'
If a migraine sufferer has had to cancel their plans with you, don't make them feel any worse by suggesting they join you when their migraine has gone.
Although it's normal to feel euphoric following a migraine attack (usually from the sheer relief that's it's over!), the person will still feel vulnerable and weak. The last thing they need is to feel pressured into recovering quickly so they can join the party later.
Besides, some people (me included) suffer from cluster migraines, meaning that the pain (and the dark cloud that accompanies the pain) can last anything from a day up to a week. Yep – definitely a curse.
4. ‘Have you been to the doctor?' ‘Have you thought about your diet?' ‘Have you tried acupuncture…?'
Forget the suggestions and the questions about why they have a migraine. Like I said, if a person is having an attack, they will not want to dissect the reasons they are getting one. Talk to them in a day or two, once it's over and I'm sure they'll explain what they've done to try and get rid of them.
5. ‘Would you like some headache tablets?'
Headache tablets won't even touch the sides when it comes to dealing with the pain. The person who has the migraine will know exactly what they need: let them tell you.
If you're going to the chemist to get something for them – ask for the pink/yellow migraleves. You take two pink tablets first and if it hasn't gone after four hours you take the yellow tablets.
Alternatively, chemists sell Sumatriptan over the counter – it's much more expensive but it will certainly take the heat off the migraine.
6. ‘Would you like some water? A cold compress? A hot water bottle?'
The only thing the person wants is for their migraine to go. If they're a regular sufferer, they'll know exactly what they need to help them, so forget the suggestions.
The worst thing you can do is make a fuss and create a scene. The person will not thank you for that. Swift and discreet help is always welcome.
7. ‘It'll probably go soon. Here, have a drink!'
Never underestimate how someone is feeling in the middle of a migraine attack. Trust me, it's one of the worst things in the world and it's so debilitating.
The migraine won't disappear with a drink – or even a bit a food. What the person needs is rest and recuperation, not to try and carry on as though everything is normal.
What to say (and do) for someone having a migraine attack
- Get them home as soon as possible: they will probably want to be sick/ take their meds/crawl into bed in a darkened room or all of the above. There's nothing else a migraine sufferer will crave more than this when in the middle of an attack.
- If it's not possible to get them home, ask what you can do for them. Examples might be get to the chemist to get some medicine, find them a bucket to be sick in, get them in a darkened room, get them to the nearest bathroom – or again, all of the above.
- Be prepared to help them by massaging where the pain is in their head. Get them lying down, keep them cool and ask them exactly where the pain is. Then, without too much pressure, slowly start massaging in a circular motion and be prepared to stick with it for a while. The pain might be too intense for the person at first and they may want to be left alone, but I have found this to be of some comfort myself on the odd occasion. In fact, I've even bought myself this little contraption which I tend to use every time I get an attack.
To all the migraine sufferers out there, I feel your pain – literally. I wouldn't wish an attack on my worst enemy and if I could do something to guarantee that I'd never get another migraine in my life, I'd do anything.
The truth is, not much is known about the real cause of migraines. And because of that, there's no miracle cure.
I just hope that in my case, the migraine gene skips a few generations so that my kids and future grandchildren don't suffer the curse. In 100 years from now, I'm sure we'll have access to something that stops migraines in their tracks – for good.
But for now, I'll stick with my pills, my sick bucket and a hell of a lot of sympathy.
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