Misunderstood Migraines

Guest Author: Seth Kaplan

Those few of you who saw Mel Brooks’s movie, “The 12 Chairs,” may recall the scene in which Frank Langella fires rapid questions at Brooks’s Igor-like character until Brooks grabs his head and screams, “Headache!” In all likelihood, that excruciating headache was a migraine. I say this with some certainty because I’ve had migraine my entire life; the propensity for it came across on a gene from my mother. However, f-

A migraine is not, strictly speaking, solely a headache. It is a complex series of biochemical interactions, often unique to the sufferer, of which headache is a symptom; i.e., it is a whole body ailment.

Photo: Alamy, The Guardian

In fact, it is rare for a doctor to tell a patient, “This is what causes your migraines.” Most GPs, OB/GYNs, and internists do not know much about migraines, which is why there are so many horror stories online about how someone’s suffering is either ignored or misdiagnosed. Since women get migraines much more often than men, it is they who receive short shrift from their doctors. Often, women are told, “You’re depressed/hysterical/_______________ (fill in what you have been told). Here’s a prescription for an antidepressant.”

So, what’s a migraineur to do? Well, later in this post, I will provide links to sites that I find useful for learning about and staying abreast of many different migraine topics. However, here are some basics I have learned over the years that will help you develop a lexicon and frame questions for a neurologist, the specialist you should see if you think you have migraine:

Not Just a Headache

A migraine is not, strictly speaking, solely a headache. It is a complex series of biochemical interactions, often unique to the sufferer, of which headache is a symptom; i.e., it is a whole body ailment.

Migraines have many triggers, some of which are common to many migraineurs and others of which are individual-specific. For example, cheddar cheese, red wine, pork chops, bananas, caffeine (ironic, because it is also used to stop migraines), chocolate

Migraine trigger foods from chronicpainblog.com

Migraines have many triggers, some of which are common to many migraineurs and others of which are individual-specific. For example:

Trigger Foods

  • Cheddar cheese
  • Red wine
  • Pork chops
  • Bananas
  • Caffeine (ironic, because it is also used to stop migraines)
  • Chocolate

Other Triggers

  • Scents
  • Sounds (my worst one as a child was a fire truck’s alarm)
  • Certain lights
  • Certain chemicals
  • Hormonal changes
  • Missing a meal
  • Falling asleep for even a few seconds
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Weather (especially rapid barometric changes). 

Types of Migraines

There are many different types of migraines. Some are hemicranial, with pain on one side of the head only; others are preceded by an aura—flashing lights, blindness in one eye, numbness in extremities—and others that one might connect to symptoms of a stroke or seizure. Still others are cluster headaches, maybe the least understood of all migraines. There’s also sinus migraine (I hate this one!), ocular migraine (no pain, just a sense that you are trapped in a just-shaken snow globe), and intestinal migraine.

There are many different types of migraines. Some are hemicranial, with pain on one side of the head only; others are preceded by an aura—flashing lights, blindness in one eye, numbness in extremities—and others that one might connect to symptoms of a stroke or seizure. Still others are cluster headaches, maybe the least understood of all migraines. There’s also sinus migraine (I hate this one!) and ocular migraine (no pain, just a sense that you are trapped in a just-shaken snow globe), and intestinal migraine;.

Migraine aura with flickering

Routine care for yourself includes staying hydrated; avoiding trigger foods; getting regular sleep; meditation (to avoid tension and to stay calm); finding out what non-prescription preparations help (for example, Excedrin for Migraine helps me); taking magnesium and riboflavin (Vitamin B2); trying herbs like feverfew and butterbur; and avoiding the “spray lady” at the cosmetics counter.

Mountains of Information

Since over one billion people worldwide suffer from migraine, it may help you to compare notes with other sufferers in other climes. Here is the list of links that will provide mountains of information about migraine in all its manifestations:

  • Migraine 101 Infographic— The Migraine Relief Center. This infographic gives comprehensive information about all things migraine. Print it out and frame it.
  • Migraine 101: A 3-Step Guide to Managing Headaches— Stanford Health Now. (This will give those who know little about migraines a way to get grounded. It takes less than six minutes to watch or listen to it. However, the doctor’s reliance on genetics and hard-wiring for migraine doesn’t take into account menopause causing hormonal migraines in women. Nevertheless, this video is a good starting point.
  • The latest headache news and the best headache remedies — HeadWay!— Relieve-migraine-headache.com. I’ve gotten this free newsletter since 2004. If you are driven to learn all you can about your migraines, work your way through the archives.
  • The Well Blog— The New York Times: Search this section for all things related to   Several years ago, The Well ran a blog on migraine. Thousands of sufferers posted their experiences, treatments, and observations about migraine. This is a one-of-a-kind resource that should not be missed.

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