I didn’t know I had migraines until the worst migraine of my life took me out for three days. I was in law school. In was one of those classes that only meets a couple times a week, but for like two hours. It was an evening class in a small room with blaring florescent lights. Long tables formed a rectangle along the perimeter of the room so we were all facing each other. I was across the room from the door. I remember having a headache. The lights were bothering me. I was feeling sicker and sicker. I was obsessively watching the clock. I needed to get out of that room. I needed air. When class was finally over, I rushed out into the cool air, took some deep breathes, and felt a little better. I walked to the subway to go home. During the fairly short ride, I started to get hot, dizzy, and nauseous. I felt the urge to vomit bubbling up and my gag reflex kicking in. I tried to will myself not to vomit. Please, please let me not puke until I get out of this train and onto the sidewalk. When the doors opened, I raced up the escalator and outside, away from people, ready to hurl; but nothing came.
I knew I needed to get home. Fast. I walked to my apartment, and immediately got in bed. I stayed in bed for three full days. No lights. Head under the covers. I don’t remember eating, but I’m sure I did. I had the most intense, painful, stabbing sensation in the right side of my head. I was overcome by nausea if I tried to stand. Lights and sound were unbearable. I was genuinely afraid there was something seriously wrong with me, but I was too sick to go to the doctor. I couldn’t even bear to call someone or go to the computer to Google my symptoms.
After three days, I finally limped out of bed, ate something, and did some research. I quickly realized, it was a migraine. And, I’d been having migraines for years. Never this extreme. But, I had headaches all the time. I thought everyone did. I’d often get hot, or the chills, nauseous, sensitive to light and sound, and sometimes these headaches would be on one side of my head. I thought it was just low blood sugar or lack of protein.
Before I realized these were migraines, I thought these symptoms were because I was a vegetarian and didn’t eat enough protein. I noticed that what I ate sometimes triggered these symptoms and eating protein seemed to help. I even started eating fish and poultry to try to avoid these symptoms. My go-to, migraine is coming on meal, was a McChicken sandwich, fries, and a Diet Coke. There is some magic in that combo of grease, protein, carbs, and caffeine. Since my MS diagnosis, I’ve avoided meat and dairy, but last week when I had a migraine, I stopped at McDonald’s for my migraine meal.
My migraines are also clearly linked to hormones. I got them twice a month, religiously, for years. Ovulation and period. It was fun. Some birth controls helped; some didn’t. When I had my son, my migraines became very infrequent. Lately, they’ve started tracking my cycle again. Last week, my migraine and period lasted the same three days.
Stress is another big trigger. In law school, I swear I had a migraine every break. Finish last final, go home, migraine for three days. It felt like my body telling me, bitch, you need to lie the fuck down. Fortunately, I’ve gotten much better at managing stress. Which is important for both MS and migraines.
Weather changes can also trigger my migraines. Big changes from hot to cold or cold to hot. Not unlike MS.
I try to avoid things I know will trigger a migraine, or my MS, but some things are unavoidable. Once I feel the early signs of a migraine, I know it’s important to act fast. If I let it get to a full-blown migraine, nothing helps. For me, it usually starts with a headache that is annoying, but not debilitating, and a knot in my neck that is stiff and painful. I often get hot, weak, and slightly nauseous. Lights and sounds can be annoying, and I am grumpy and have less patience. Sometimes this can be hard to decipher from PMS. Once I realize it’s a migraine, I take ibuprofen or Excedrin Migraine and drink caffeine ASAP. I need food. Carbs and/or protein, but NO sugar. I have a peppermint oil roller I keep with me and rub at the base of my neck and on my temples. Massage helps if you can get one.
Last week I was a work with a day full of meetings. I knew it was coming. I took medicine, used peppermint oil, ate, and limped through the day. On my way home, I stopped to get McDonald’s. My head was pounding and the nausea was growing. I kept alternating all the tools in my migraine toolkit, but still spent the weekend sleeping and watching Netflix from the couch. MS fatigue can drain my energy and pull me to the couch like a powerful magnet. Migraines force me to stay down, inflicting pain every time I try to get up.
From what I’ve read, there is no research that shows that MS causes migraines. But, migraines are very common among those of us with MS. About 12% of the population suffer from migraines, whereas over 30% of people with MS get migraines. My migraines started at least in my early 20’s; I did not have any obvious symptoms of MS until my 40’s. I can’t help but wonder if they’re linked. Does one cause the other? Does something cause both? Or are some of us just lucky to get two chronic conditions that hold our bodies hostage?