When you mention the movie “E.T.,” most people think of “Phone home.” But I think of migraines. I was watching the movie with my family when I had my first attack. One minute I was happily enjoying myself, and the next, I felt a blinding pain in my head. It was so excruciating that I huddled on the theater floor, squeezed my head and rocked back and forth.
As a child, I was “prone to headaches.” I was the kid who went to sleepaway camp with my own bottle of ibuprofen, but I wasn’t formally diagnosed with migraines until I was in law school. There, the stress, lack of sleep, irregular eating, and intense amounts of reading in dark libraries resulted in several bad episodes, including the time a friend found me in my apartment, clutching my head and repeating over and over, “Make it stop!” That was the day I received my official diagnosis of migraines, which are defined as disabling headaches, severe enough to markedly restrict or prohibit daily activity, that can be accompanied by nausea or light or sound sensitivity and are often characterized by a throbbing or pulsing sensation. They can last from several hours to several days.
It was not until I was pregnant with my older daughter, who is now almost 13, that I slipped into chronic daily migraines. At that time, I went to several neurologists who said there was nothing they could do because I was pregnant and migraine medications were contraindicated. (Today, most prophylactic anti-migraine treatments are still contraindicated in pregnancy, but a recent study found that the triptans—drugs like Imitrex taken to stop a headache that’s coming on—can be safe when you’re pregnant.)
Over the past 14 years, I have been under the care of some of the best neurologists in the country, and have tried virtually every treatment. Some worked for a bit, but none were long-term solutions. Most had side effects that made me question whether they were worth it.
Botox injections provide me with some relief and I am now trying a new class of drugs that target the calcitonin gene–related peptide (CGRP), which is believed to be involved in the inflammatory processes that cause migraines.
After almost 14 years, I think of migraines as my burden to bear, and I have learned to just live with them. I am not alone in this. The Migraine Research Foundation reports that approximately 4 million people in the U.S. are currently living with chronic migraines. Here are 5 things I wish more people understood about what it feels like to get migraine headaches: