In Short: Torture.
When I was diagnosed with migraine headaches, the doctor told me the typical sufferer was creative, intelligent …and female. “Two out of three ain’t bad,” I replied.
Not that it was a difficult diagnosis: my parents also had migraines, and my siblings. But it did open up treatment options. At the time the options were opioids (pain relief) and ergotamine, an alkaloid. The doctor prescribed both.
Neither was ideal: migraines often cause nausea. Opioids too. And ergotamine! If one drug didn’t work and I took the other, I was almost guaranteed to puke, which is a real joy when you have a blinding headache.
My mother used ergotamine enough that it caused circulation problems, so I stopped using it. I got very good at figuring out the lowest dose of codeine that would help, but I was still taking a lot.
Most migraineurs* report various “triggers” cause headaches, including stress, poor sleep, hormonal changes, caffeine, weather, hunger, and many foods, none of which are universal. For me, the only thing I know that will trigger an especially nasty headache is aspartame, the artificial sweetener.
* as we’re called by medical researchers, such as in the study, “Is the Brain of Migraineurs ‘Different’ Even in Dreams?” Guys! See “creative and intelligent” — yeah our brains are ‘different’!
There are two types of migraines: “classic” and “common.” The difference: “classic” sufferers usually see an “aura” (visual disturbance) that signals a headache is coming. I don’t get that; I’m “common.”
My migraines feel like a spike being driven into my head at a specific spot I can point to, through to my eye. Bright light makes it worse.
Over time I found that I’d feel somewhat better by eating, so I learned to eat when nauseous. I suspect a lot of my fellow sufferers have had to master that.
A new class of drug was approved in the 1990s for migraine attacks, “triptans.” At first it was only available as an injectable. The drug company supplied a syringe and this weird plastic thing that would automatically JAM the needle in and press hard on the plunger, which was guaranteed to hurt like hell.
As a former medic I had given plenty of shots, so I threw away the plastic thing and simply gave myself the shot. This was while I was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One time, just as I sunk the needle into my arm, a co-worker walked into my office. Great… she’ll think I’m a heroin addict or something!
“Is that the migraine drug?!” she blurted. “Does it work?!” Yes, I told her, pretty well. She called her doctor for a prescription and had it the next day!
It was, of course, expensive, and I was getting headaches enough that I finally researched other ways to manage them. Beta blockers, which calm the heart and are prescribed to heart attack victims (after they recover) and for high blood pressure, help prevent migraines. Last I heard they still don’t really know why.
I told my doctor I wanted to try them. He prescribed the lowest dose possible, twice a day. After a couple of months I noticed I wasn’t getting headaches as often. They slowly decreased more and more over the next several years.
I’m now almost headache free, When I do get one it’s nowhere near as bad, and OTC drugs almost always help. But I keep codeine on hand just in case. I rarely need it.—
Randy Cassingham is WiLt’s head writer and publisher. His flagship publication This is True, established in 1994, is the oldest entertainment feature on the Internet.
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