As a kid, I’d watch my mom get migraine attacks a few times a month. She’d come home from work, muttering, “It’s starting behind my eyes,” take two Excedrin, then retreat to her room for darkness and quiet. It was a routine I knew well, which made it all the more upsetting when I started getting migraine attacks myself.
Through the years, my mom and I have developed a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry bond over our raging headaches and stanning of Excedrin Migraine. Though we no longer live in the same house, we’ll send each other texts when the behind-the-eye pain starts, offering loving suggestions like, “You should probably get off your phone.” While we’ve each found some ad-hoc methods that work for us, I’ve started to wonder what actual medical professionals recommend for migraine relief. For myself and my mama, I set out to make a sort of “Migraine Survival Kit” to reach for when the pain starts.
What Is Migraine?
About a minute into my first interview, I realized I’ve been completely wrong about migraine — and subsequently, migraine relief. Like a lot of people, I thought “migraine” was an acute issue that happened to certain people periodically. I would find myself saying stuff like, “Could you stop practicing your tuba, I have a migraine.”
However, Narayan Kissoon, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, explained that rather than a singular “bad” headache, migraine is a “genetic brain disease” or sensory processing disorder that’s happening all the time. It’s a constant, heightened response to normal sensory input that can periodically erupt into painful headaches, which neurologists call “migraine attacks.”
“A person doesn’t have ‘a migraine’ and it goes away,” Kissoon told HuffPost. “They always have migraine, but can have attacks of migraine headache. The genetic factors that predispose to getting the migraine headache are always present.”
The American Migraine Foundation states that “migraine” (no “a”) is a general term for the disease, whereas “a migraine attack” (with an “a”) is the term for the bad headache you’re having. This may seem like a tedious grammar lesson, but knowing the correct terms helps with education, lessens stigma and encourages people to take migraine more seriously.
For Teshamae Monteith, a neurologist and headache specialist based in Miami, understanding that migraine is a constant, ever-present sensory disorder is the first step in getting the right treatment. There are treatments to relieve the pain of acute attacks, but Monteith said managing migraine is also about understanding the disease and preemptive care.
“The first thing is making sure that you truly have a diagnosis of migraine,” she said. “It’s hard to treat if you don’t have the right diagnosis.”
Only 50% of people who have migraine have been officially diagnosed, Monteith said. Additionally, there are cases of secondary headaches that mimic migraine symptoms. So to get clear on your diagnosis — and further, your treatment plan — talk to your primary care doctor or a specialist about your exact needs.