Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How I Love to Hate Migraines

I was going to prepare a post for today on Monday or Tuesday, but a migraine got in the way. Migraines are my Achilles' heel. I don't take painkillers for tension headaches, menstrual cramps, or aching muscles. But when a migraine hits, my world shuts down, and liquid pain relief capsules that are supposed to begin working within fifteen minutes only manage to take away a tiny portion of my suffering, and that, only after an hour and a half. A swollen fist of pain sits in my temple, putting so much pressure behind my eye that it tears for hours. And there is nothing I can do about it.

It's at times like these that I wonder why this happens to me and so many others. There are obvious factors: stress, anxiety, skipping meals, sleeping too little or too much, and being over-exposed to bright sunlight. I admit my weekend was full of stress and anxiety, and my emotions were on a bit of a rollercoaster, but there have been other times when a migraine has hit for no apparent reason (and vice versa, when those factors were in place but no migraine appeared). What if invisible environmental factors have something to do with it?

Take for example this weekend. I drove out of town for a family reunion. Apparently the whole city had similar plans, this being a long weekend. Both the drive out and back in took two hours longer than usual. That's four hours of inhaling carbon monoxide, unburnt fuel, VOCs, and ozone from nearby tailpipes while idling on an eight-lane highway. Isn't it reasonable to assume that toxic gases + traffic-related stress = migraine for those of us who have a propensity for them?

What about smog? Toronto gets its fair share in the heat of the summer, and that's when I experience more migraines compared to the cold winter months. Since I don't have respiratory or cardiovascular problems, my body might react to smog by unleashing a migraine. I don't think poor air quality and headaches are directly related, but I wonder if migraines are a symptom of overall body stress? "You're polluting me", my body cries out as it pounds that fist into my temple. If you think about my reaction to the pain - going home to sleep it off and staying away from exhaust, toxic cleaning products in public buildings, and the nasty chemicals that hide in the perfume and cologne that so many people like to bathe themselves in - then maybe migraines serve the purpose of isolating me from these poisons.

What do you think? Could there be some validity to this theory, or am I sprouting nonsense because yesterday's migraine killed off some of my brain cells?

Photo used under Creative Commons from Deborah Leigh (flickr).


  1. Migraines are horrible-so sorry you were hit with one this week. I absolutely think there's validity in your "migraine theory". That's why it's so important that we listen to our bodies-they really do speak! Glad you are feeling better. I love the barbie with the clamp photo :)

  2. Thanks Lori. I think it's easy for us to forget just how many ways we can harm our health. Unhealthy food is easy to identify; toxins, not so much.

  3. Ouch. I've never had a migraine, but I have friends who suffer from them, and they sound awful. Correct me if I'm wrong, but they seem to be mostly a developed world phenomenon. We lead pretty toxic lives; I wouldn't be surprised if that manifested itself in our bodies in many different ways.

    I'm glad you're OK now.

  4. Thanks Jennifer. Considering I only rarely get a cold or the flu (knock on wood), tension headaches and migraines seem to be my body's illness of choice. Since I can't catch them from others, I'm really frustrated not knowing the triggers. As I said in the post, it's not always related to food, sleep, or anxiety. I don't think environmental toxins alone account for the pain, but I bet they're a contributing factor.

  5. Hi Andrea. I'm so sorry to hear that you suffer from migraines. I had a bad one yesterday evening. It is gone today, but I'm still exhausted from the experience and my right shoulder is still very sore- a typical side effect I have. I'm just taking it easy today.

    I had chronic migraines (one a day) from age 9 to about age 20. It was a living hell and although I only occasionally get migraines these days, I'm still recovering from living through so many years of chronic pain.

    For me, stress is the trigger. I grew up in a stressful household with a less than ideal family. It was the typical suburban hell: perfect on the outside and misery on the inside. I ate a poor diet of processed foods. Also, suburbia is basically a toxic wasteland. The homes are made from cheap, toxic materials, the lawns are sprayed weekly with chemicals, etc. I remember every day as a kid getting off the school bus about to vomit from the pain of the migraine, then laying down on the front lawn feeling like I was going to die. Laying down in that toxic grass certainly wasn't helping my situation as I agree with you that unhealthy environmental factors can contribute to a migraine. Also, I took 12+ Tylenol a day starting at age 10. I think all of the painkillers I took over the years was causing a toxic backlash. I worry about the effect it has had on my liver.

    Leaving my stressful household for college certainly helped me to minimize stress as well as changing my diet to whole, fresh, mostly organic foods. I have been seeing counselors on and off since age 16 and I highly recommend this as a way to manage stress and learn how to prevent the onset of migraines. It has been a lot of hard work over the last decade or so to come to this point of my life where I only have about 2 migraines a month, but it has been well worth the effort.

    My migraine yesterday was triggered by a full day driving in the car, hot temperatures, and a stressful, negative energy due to the day's activities. I can certainly see how you got a migraine after all of the time you spent driving, the stress from visiting your family, and the stress from the pollution you were exposed to. The question is, though: How can you prevent a migraine in the future under similar circumstances?

    Since I have suffered from migraines, I can totally relate to you pain. Please feel free to email me if you'd like to talk more about this.

  6. Thank you so much Emily, I appreciate your candour in this public space. I can't believe you had to live with daily migraines for over a decade. I can't imagine the suffering. How on earth did you get through school?

    As for how to prevent migraines in the future under conditions similar to the ones I experienced this past weekend... well for one thing, I'm never driving out of town (or even around town) on a holiday long weekend again, ever. I may also attempt to avoid certain family situations that are particularly stressful, though that's a little trickier to accomplish. I continue to struggle with my sensitivity to bright light. What else can I do besides sunglasses and a hat?

    I'll definitely send you an e-mail so we can discuss this further.

  7. Just saw this today:

    Thought you might be interested!

    Katherine @ Heartfelt

  8. Thanks Katherine! Reading that has inspired to restart my food/weather/sleep diary again to see if I'm missing a trigger that I didn't notice the last time I tried this strategy.