The bottom line is that I used to get 3-4 headaches a month, and now I only get 3-4 per year. I wish I had just one easy thing to tell you to cure migraines, but for me it hasn't been that simple. But here's what works for me.
My Migraine History...
I've suffered from migraine headaches most of my life. I can still remember the first one clear as day. I was in highschool and I woke up feeling like someone had stuck an ice pick in my temple. My mother gave me 3 extra strength Tylenol, and when that didn't do anything, she angrily gave me 3 more.
"Can you take that many Tylenol?" I asked. (BTW... in case you're wondering, you should never, EVER take that much Tylenol all at once! Just sayin...)
"Well, I don't see that you have much choice, now do you? Now get going, I'm gonna be late for work!" she snapped as she shoved me out the car door and deposited me on the steps of the school.
Needless to say, my migraines went undiagnosed until I reached adulthood. I just sorta figured that I had bad headaches, and thought that feeling like you were gonna puke was just a side effect of the pain.
It wasn't until I met CatMan that I started to figured it all out. We were in a band together, and we were rehearsing at his house when I started to feel the tell-tail tingling in my right temple. Pretty soon he was watching me massage the side of my head and asked if I was OK. I tried to brush it off, but before long every chord was like a new adventure in pain and I had to stop.
CatMan was very concerned and wanted to whisk me off to the emergency room. When I told him that I got these headaches 3-4 times a month he grew even more concerned! Anyhow, he insisted upon driving me home, and within a few weeks I was sitting in a neurologist's office who very quickly diagnosed me with classic migraines. He prescribed all sorts of medication, including oral painkillers, muscle relaxants, a calcium channel blocker as a preventative and even a brand new (at the time) medication called Imatrix that I had to inject into my leg at the onset of the headache.
None of it helped very much, and I sorta figured that I was just gonna have to learn to live with the pain. Then CatMan saw an ad in the paper for a seminar on migraine headaches, and off we went.
I don't remember too much about the seminar except that they said that with migraines the key is finding ways to prevent them before they start. One of the things they suggested was to keep a headache journal. The idea of the journal was to write down each time you got a headache, and then to write down everything you'd eaten or drunk in the past 12 hours, plus anything else you could think of that was going on. Then you look for patterns to see if you can figure out what is triggering your headaches and work to find ways to avoid or mitigate those triggers.
That little journal was the beginning of my healing process.
At this point I could take you through an excruciatingly long diatribe about all the things that I tried, what worked and what didn't, and how I figured out each trigger, but since this post is already getting too long, I think I'll just cut to the chase.
The first thing I want to note here is that I am NOT a doctor, and you shouldn't take any of this as medical advice. I'm just saying what works for me, and I think you should be careful to sort out your own triggers before just jumping in and thinking that what works for me will solve your own migraine problems.
For instance, my stepmother gets terrible migraines if she eats anything preserved with citric acid, but it doesn't bother me in the least. So before you go removing things from your diet or adding a bunch of supplements, it's really important to sort out what your triggers are and probably also to talk to you doctor.
OK, so that being said, here's my multi-pronged approach to controlling my headaches.
An Ounce of Prevention...
So, as I mentioned above, your best defense against migraines is to prevent them in the first place. So my first line of defense is preventative supplements. These are things that I take every day, all of which have been shown to help prevent migraine headaches. I'm too lazy to go look up the studies, but all of these things really seem to help me.
Feverfew is a member of the sunflower family. It has some anti-inflammatory as well as muscle relaxant properties and has been shown in several studies to reduce both the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. It can cause some drug interactions, especially with blood thinners and anesthetics, and can cause rebound headaches if you stop taking it suddenly, so some caution is warranted. I take a 380mg supplement daily. Here's a link with more info...
Magnesium is an essential mineral and much has been made recently of the fact that our modern soils are deficient in magnesium, and hence so are our modern foods. There have been several studies done showing that most migraine sufferers have low magnesium levels, and the magnesium supplementation can reduce both the number and severity of headaches.
Magnesium comes in several different forms and there's lots of disagreement about which kind is best absorbed by the body. I take several different varieties which add up to about 600mg daily. Too much magnesium can give you diarrhea (think Phillips Milk of Magnesia), so you should proceed with caution. Here is a link with more info...
3) Coenzyme Q10.
a link with more info on CoQ10 and migraines.
So, those are my preventative supplements.
Avoiding My Triggers...
Now for the triggers... and unfortunately they are numerous. It's pretty much impossible to avoid all of the things that can trigger headaches for me, but I've found that there's sort of a cumulative effect, so if I know that I'm gonna be exposed to one trigger, I try extra hard to avoid all of the other ones.
Anyhow, here are the things that trigger headaches for me, and what I do to avoid them.
1) Fluctuating Estrogen Levels.
This is BY FAR my biggest headache trigger, and I think it's a trigger for many women. I tend to get headaches when my "auntie flow" is visiting. I'm on the birth control pill (to control horrible cramps and what one doctor feared might be early stage endometriosis, so going off the pill isn't really a good option for me.) Anyhow, I am most prone to get a migraine during what CatMan and I fondly refer to as "evil green pill week" (it's actually been many years since I took a brand that had green pills... but somehow the name stuck.)
At any rate, when you're on the pill your estrogen levels drop during your period and this can trigger headaches. I'm not sure how it works for people who aren't on the pill. Over the years various doctors have suggested that I try a low estrogen brand of pill, which was a horrible disaster (I basically had a continuous migraine for about 6 weeks) or skipping the "off" week entirely (which was similarly disastrous.)
I finally discovered that if I take an Evening Primrose Oil supplement during the week of my period I am much less likely to get a headache. Evening primrose oil contains gamma-linolenic acid which is supposed to regulate inflammation in the body, but there are also some studies showing that it can boost estrogen levels naturally. So my theory is that by supplementing with primrose oil, I can help to keep my estrogen levels from falling so much during my period. So I take 1000mg daily but only during my period week, and it really seems to help. Here's a link with more info on evening primrose oil.
However, "Auntie Flow" is not the only source of wildly fluctuating estrogen levels in this modern world of ours. Many years ago I stumbled upon a documentary about environmental estrogens that pretty much horrified me. Basically, we're living in a soup of endocrine disrupting chemicals, and many of them mimic the effects of estrogen on the human body. BPA, which you've probably heard of, is one of them, but they're also found in many detergents, herbicides, pesticides, and phthalates which are used in fragrances and plastifiers.
One of the things the documentary featured was a scientist doing breast cancer research. Somehow her samples were getting contaminated with some source of estrogen and they were growing out of control. She finally tore apart the entire lab and tested everything to find the source of the contamination. It turned out that the plastic test tubes were the culprit.
At that point I went a little bit nuts and decided to try to limit my exposure to plastics, especially in terms of food storage. I switched to all glass, ceramic and stainless steel food storage containers - well, I still keep a few dry goods in plastic, but nothing liquid where the plastic could leach into the food. I NEVER put plastic in the microwave, and I try to limit my use of canned foods.
I also stopped using any and all chemicals on my lawn, I limit my exposure to detergents (no poo is part of that) I religiously wash my hands after handling receipts, I don't use any personal care products that are scented, and I try to avoid things like air fresheners and scented candles. I also stopped using a hard plastic dental device that always tasted toxic to me.
Of all the many things on my list, this one had the single biggest impact. The number and severity of my headaches dropped dramatically as soon as I started removing plastic and trying to avoid artificial estrogens.
2) Food Triggers.
There are many, MANY foods that people claim can trigger migraines, but for me the main one is fermented foods. Mostly it's things like dark beer, red wine, and stuff like sauerkraut. Other things that will get me are soy products, especially soy milk (though rice milk does it too). Legumes and citrus fruit in large quantities can trigger headaches for me, but I can still eat them as long as I use moderation. Many people have problems with cheese, but it doesn't seem to bother me.
3) Flashing Lights & Other Visual Stimuli.
I'm not sure exactly how this one works, but strobe lights or similar flashing lights will give me a headache every time. The other visual stuff that does it for me is things that move horizontally, like looking out of the side window of a moving vehicle. Actually, elevators and airplanes also do it, so it might be the motion as well as the visual part.
But back when I was still trying to be a psychology major in college, all of the research journals were scanned onto microfilm. I'm sure some of you are too young to remember the joys of microfilm, but basically they put each page in a separate frame on a big roll of film, and you run it through a machine to find the page you want. When you're doing a lot of research this can mean hour after hour of watching pages roll by. OY! Yet another reason that college was hell!
4) Low Blood Sugar.
I haven't heard many people talk about this as a migraine trigger, but it certainly seems to hold true for me. If I let my blood sugar drop too low I get a headache, and it almost always turns into a migraine for me. This means that I have to be really careful about eating sugar because it will cause my blood sugar to spike and then crash.
5) Sleep Disruption.
This is one that I struggle mightily with. It sort of goes against my hatred of routine. But if I let myself stay up too late, (doing things like, ahem, hanging out on the blogosphere) and/or don't get enough sleep for any other reason, it almost always triggers headaches for me. I'm generally OK if I can make up the sleep somehow, but a few nights in a row of not enough sleep, and I am in the headache danger zone!
6) Caffeine and Nasal Decongestants.
OK, this is a bit of an odd one. Caffeine is actually used to treat migraines so how can it be a trigger? Well... here's the deal. Migraines are sometimes called vascular headaches because it is thought that there is some component of either constriction or flaccidity of the blood vessels (I've actually read that either or both can happen.) Both caffeine and nasal decongestants work by constricting the blood vessels and this can often help to abort a migraine in progress. However, fluctuating levels can cause a rebound effect triggering a migraine. Soooo... I try to limit my caffeine intake and to keep it very, VERY regular... as in one cup of green tea every morning.
I know that "stress" is almost a catch-all these days. Almost every ailment is said to be caused by "stress" so let me clarify what I mean. It's not that being worried or harried will trigger a headache, but if I'm really upset, angry, and/or have been crying for any meaningful period of time, my head very quickly starts to feel like it's gonna explode. So I guess happiness is medically necessary for me!
OK... so that's about it in terms of prevention, and really, for me at least, prevention is really where I've had most of my success.
If All Else Fails...
So, on the (thankfully now) rare occasion when I do get a migraine, I have best luck if I steer clear of the heavy duty medication. I know they must work for some people, but my experience is that the side effects of even the "side-effect free" migraine meds are so horrible that they're almost worse than the headache. I can't count the number of times that I gave up and took a prescription "triptan" pill (the modern equivalent of those Imatrix shots) only to be up all night wondering if I was gonna die from the medication.
Plus, the prescription meds often trigger rebound headaches for me, which can be much, MUCH worse than the original migraine.
Sooooo... here's my strategy for dealing with a headache once it starts.
1) Deal With It Right Away!
I fear I tend to have a bit of an avoidant personality... you know, ignore it and maybe it will go away. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work too well with headaches. Waiting around hoping that it will go away on it's own is generally a bad idea because once the cycle of pain starts, it's really hard to stop it.
2) The Cuppa Cure.
So, my first line of defense is to take two extra strength Tylenol along with 200mg of Magnesium and a cup of green tea (or black tea if it's a really bad one.) The caffeine in the tea actually boosts the pain relieving effect of the Tylenol by about 40%, and if I can nip it in the bud this way (or "nip it in the butt" as I used to think the saying went) I can usually head off a migraine before it takes hold.
But since caffeine can trigger rebound headaches, I try to keep it down to small levels and use caution.There are a lot of over the counter migraine medications that have acetaminophen and caffeine in them, but I generally avoid them because they have a whopping HUGE dose of caffeine, and it tends to both make me feel shaky and horrible, as well as triggering rebound headaches.
OK, I know this sounds all new agey, but if I have a migraine coming on yoga can really help. My migraines are almost always on the right side of my head. The pain is centered in my temple, but radiates down into my neck and shoulder. Doing yoga, especially poses that focus on the arms, neck and shoulders really seems to help.
4) Hot Bath.
Hot baths are one of my great pleasures in life. They are very relaxing, but I think there's more to it than that in terms of heading off a migraine. One of the symptoms of migraine headaches is cold hands and feet. I read somewhere that if you warm your hands and feet you can often abort a migraine in its early stages. I suppose you could just wash the dishes and soak your feet, but a hot bath is soooo much nicer! Anyhow, this one only has about a 30% success rate for me, but what the heck, any excuse to take a long hot bath!
5) High Protein Meal.
OK, this might be a little bit out there in crazy land, but when I get a migraine I start to get really, really nauseous. Soooo... I heard somewhere a theory that the nausea of morning sickness was really extreme hunger brought on by the body's increased need for calories during pregnancy. Anyhow, it occurred to me that maybe something similar was going on during a migraine. So... instead of shunning food like I generally want to during a headache, recently I've tried eating a high protein meal, and it really seems to help. I wrote a post about it a while back in case you're curious.
If all else fails, sleep! OK... honestly, sometimes it's really difficult to fall asleep when I have a migraine, but I do find that taking frequent naps and not trying to push through the headache really helps.
OK! So there you have it. Sorry this post is so long, but I hope someone can find something helpful in there.
So how about you, any fellow migraine sufferers out there? What have you done to deal with your headaches?