All these things trigger my migraines, a disease I’ve been coping with since adolescence. It starts as a faint ache on the right side of my head, behind my eye. My neck tenses. I start to consider taking my pill. With only eight pills per month allowed by my insurance, though, I hesitate wasting one if this is just a tension headache. Within an hour or two, it’s a full blown migraine. If I take my pill early enough, I only have about 30 minutes of painful agony and intense nausea before the pain subsides. If I waited too long, I’m out for hours, retreating to a dark, silent room. If it’s one of the worst ones, I’m on the bathroom floor, vomiting from the pain. Then it’ll come back half a day later, sometimes days before it finally leaves.
Migraines affect 38 million people in the U.S., more frequently women than men and most commonly ages 25-55. It’s more than a headache. It includes a laundry list of neurological symptoms including debilitating pain, nausea, dizziness, auras, extreme sensitivity to sound and light and facial paralysis or numbness. Migraines have different phases and with practice, people can usually recognize the signs of each.
My only true relief has been pregnancy when for two glorious trimesters, I am migraine-free – a fact I frequently used to justify another baby. Daily preventative medicine helps, but many drugs can’t be taken when you’re trying to get pregnant, pregnant or nursing, which has been the last six years for me.
More than 70 percent of migraine sufferers have a genetic link, in my case my mom and grandma. My 5-year-old has started to get them, luckily treated by Ibuprofen and sleep at this point. We’ve already started to talk, though, about understanding your body and natural techniques for reducing pain.
My migraines usually hit at the worst times – right at school pickup time when I have to will myself to walk into a loud school, lift bodies into car seats and not throw up in the parking lot. My husband travels frequently so passing them off and hiding under the covers isn’t always an option. Avoiding my triggers like alcohol or chocolate are easy. But avoiding exhaustion, older infant nursing postures or stress with three kids 5 and under isn’t really in the cards.
Instead, I’ve found other ways to cope. With 1 and 4 households including a migraine sufferer, hopefully these tips are helpful to some of you as well.
Always carry medication and other survival items.
The key to controlling migraines is recognizing the warning signs and acting fast. The worst is knowing I need a pill and not being able to find my bottle. Now, it travels with me in my purse, my pump bag or on my night stand. For my son, I have a bottle of Children’s Ibuprofen in a bag that goes with us. We have puke bags in the car that I saved from a Children’s Mercy visit but are also available on Amazon. I keep little cans of Pepsi in the fridge since sometimes that caffeine jolt with my pill seems to make it work faster.
Avoid triggers when possible.
Many of mine are unavoidable but I have to pep talk myself into skipping the avoidable ones when I really want a glass of wine. For my son, we are careful about overwhelming sensory situations like large groups of kids that seem to trigger his migraines. When he requested just three kids at his birthday party, I didn’t push him to include more friends. We both carry around a water bottle eliminating the dehydration trigger and limit our sugar intake.
Advocate for yourself.
It took awhile for my husband to understand it wasn’t just a bad headache, and he witnesses them first hand! Explaining to co-workers, teachers, extended family or friends is harder especially when attacks are frequently making you miss work, school or social events. When my son went to kindergarten, we told his teacher that when he starts rubbing his head and complaining about a stomachache (often a first sign in kids), he should be trusted and needs meds right away. Migraines are a disabling condition.
Ask for help.
If I get one when I’m parenting solo, my kids are gifted a movie marathon and pizza delivery. The baby gets a cuddle session. If that’s not possible, I call a friend or a babysitter. When my husband is home, I’ve learned to be more honest about how I am feeling instead of trying to make it through an attack.
Don’t suffer unnecessarily.
I’ve been told I’ll probably “grow out” of migraines after menopause, which when I was getting them four days a week does not make the next two decades seem very hopeful. But since beginning this post, I have seen a neurologist who was able to find a daily preventative that works for me (and is breastfeeding compatible) that has reduced my attacks to twice a month. I even drank wine this weekend with the only consequence being some overly generous bidding at a silent auction. Don’t assume you have to suffer – new research and new medications are always being approved.