The Mystery of Migraines.


Last weekend’s Good Weekend had a fascinating article on migraines. Here are some highlights:

“… the World Health Organisation (WHO) rates it [the migraine] as a leading cause of disability worldwide, involving ‘substantial personal suffering, impaired quality of life and financial cost’… A host of ferociously intelligent and creative people have suffered similarly—Tchaikovsky, George Bernard Shaw, Nietzsche, van Gogh.” Scarlett Harris.

Seriously, though, “there are… many migraines… There are migraines with pain in the temples; around the eyes; between the brows; at the back of the head; on one side or the other.” I’ve had them all.

“Some migraines make you sensitive to light, some to noise; some have nausea and vomiting at cheerful additions to the unbelievable pain.” Yep, those were happy times indeed.

From the age of about 8 til the end of high school, I suffered from migraines, on average, once a week. Sometimes more; if I was lucky, sometimes less. The pain lessened as I got older, but I often missed school and, later, work as a result. I barely ever get migraines now; my last one conveniently took place on a four-day trip to Philip Island, and didn’t let up til my return home.

So this article resonated with me as no other Good Weekend feature has.

But how did I know they were migraines and not just headaches?

“… if your headache lasts between four and 72 hours (untreated), and if it includes two of the following—one-sided pain, throbbing pain, pain that’s increased by physical activity, or pain that’s strong enough to stop you living your normal life—you are probably suffering from a migraine.”

My headaches usually took the form of throbbing in the temple, nausea, the inability to sit up, read, watch television or use the computer, and left me incapacitated for two to three days on average. Definitely migraines.

Amanda Hooton profiles the history of migraines, from the Neolithic people who “were willing to have their skulls opened with stone axes in order to release the evil spirits inside”, to Lewis Carroll, to LSD as migraine cure, which was “just what someone already seeing small pink creatures on the carpet really needs”!

No one I knew suffered migraines the way I did, so I was all alone in my quest to dull the pain. I now have a system for diagnosing the cause of my migraines, and the remedy. If I haven’t eaten all day and start to get pain in both temples, it’s a hunger headache and I just need food. If I’ve been sitting in bed all day, or on an unsupportive couch, or on a La-Z-Boy/car seat with a headrest that pushes my head forward, it’s a posture headache, and water and drugs will help. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with mind-numbing pain on the top of my skull. The prescription? Drugs, drugs, and more drugs.


“Neuroscientists currently believe that migraines might be caused by what doctors call a ‘spreading depression’—a wave that slowly spreads across the cortex, or outer layers, of the brain. This wave is caused by brain neurons, which carry an electrical charge. In order to send signals to each other during normal brain activity, they ‘transiently depolarise’, or discharge some of their electrical charge via negative ions…

“Researchers have also postulated that the ‘pebble’ [effect caused by the discharging neurons] is really a bubble or tiny blood clot that lodges in a cortical blood vessel… and others have suggested that migraineurs express genes that make their neurons ‘trigger happy’ and more likely than normal to depolarise.”

That’s all well and good, but what does this mean for migraine sufferers?:

“A little-known fact of migraines is that about 90 per cent of migraineurs have a close relative who also suffers from them.”

My mum had a couple here and there over her lifetime, but nothing like the severity or frequency I suffered. As far as I know my dad never had them, and neither did my sister. So, like Hooton, any medical breakthroughs that can somehow impede the TRESK gene that genetic migraine sufferers possess won’t really help us.

The good news is that “for most migraineurs, migraines become rarer, shorter and less painful with age.”

For me, they certainly have.

Image via The Age.