My Week Without Migraine

I have lived with chronic migraine for over three years. Usually, sensory experiences that are considered “normal” to most are painful for me, and when enough of them are piled on top of each other, I am incapacitated by any combination of head pain, muscle pain, fatigue, nausea, and depression. Sound familiar?

I usually experience two or three full-blown attacks per week. But not this past week. This week was different. This week I had a common cold, and by some miraculous brain/nervous system flick of a switch, I was not only migraine-free, I had my old brain back. Overnight, the screech of the subway, the clouds of perfume, and the stress of a day at work on top of a poor night’s sleep no longer had the power to increase my pain levels. I tossed my ear plugs aside, left my tinted glasses in their case, and made my way about with only some tissues and a bottle of throat syrup with more energy than usual.

This wasn’t the first time a cold caused my migraine brain to quiet down. It’s happened several times before. When I have brought this to the attention of my healthcare practitioners, their first question is always “what have you done differently while you have a cold?” For a while, I thought this question would lead me to some exciting treatment plan modifications. Unfortunately, after much careful observation, I have concluded with certainty that all the things I do differently when I have a cold (binge-watching TV, eating when I feel like it, napping sporadically, and generally pushing my physical limits) are all things that bring on a migraine on any regular day. The only explanation I can come up with (keep in mind my complete lack of medical knowledge) is that somehow when my immune system is working overtime, it also quells whatever mysterious mechanism is at the root of my chronic pain.

Apparently, I’m an anomaly. I have yet to find another person with migraine who also experiences better migraine health while sick with a cold or flu. (Are you out there?) So, medical curiosities aside for now, what has this blessed week without migraine offered me, other than some very welcome respite?

  1. Personal confirmation of physiological root-cause for migraine.
    While it has been more or less established that migraine is caused by genetic and physiological forces, it can be hard not to trip over some form of self-blame when searching for answers. We live in a culture and time that emphasizes positive thinking and attitude as directly related to our physical and mental health, which is mostly a good thing, I think. But because we know that negative thoughts can contribute to our pain, it can be tempting to take this concept to its logical conclusion and imagine that we “succumb” to the pain as some kind of personal failure to employ the power of “mind over body,” or to heal ourselves of past psychological wounds.

    Here’s the thing: when I was sick with a chest cold and a cough that could wake the dead, I was still completely and utterly myself, with all my various flaws. I was still a perfectionist; I was still stressed out about my job; I was still palpably cranky at the end of a long day; and I was probably just as affected by whatever minor oppression or neglect I’ve experienced in my lifetime, but with one big difference: no migraine. I think it stands to reason that if I can be a deeply flawed human being with negative emotions and NOT have it spark a migraine, then the pain is not at all my fault. Negative emotions might exacerbate pain, and/or change the way I experience it, but in essence, the pain is not, and will never be my fault. Phew. Now to tattoo this on my forearm…

  2. A clear indication of the level of disability chronic migraine entails.

    Every morning I woke up with a deep chest rattle, sore throat, and a minor headache, I rejoiced. When my chest cold and cough faded away and my light, sound, and touch sensitivity returned, I was slain. To lease a non-migraine brain for a week had allowed me to do so many things again without constantly having to monitor and manage my environment, food intake, and mood. Even though it was nothing new, to be suddenly without my old abilities again was a shock to the system. There were some tears, and luckily some hugs to go with them.

    I do not care to dwell on this fact, but it is fairly revealing, both to me and potentially the public at large, that I would much rather be sick with a severe chest cold, sore throat and cough that keeps me up half the night than have frequent migraine attacks.

    [Excuse me a moment while I preach to the choir: MIGRAINE IS NOT A HEADACHE. IT CAN INVOLVE A MULTITUDE OF SYMPTOMS THAT ARE MUCH MORE DISABLING THAN THE COMMON COLD OR FLU. IT CAN INSTIGATE AND PERPETUATE MENTAL ILLNESS. IT IS A NASTY BEAST THAT CAN RUIN LIVES. IT HAS BEEN SEVERELY UNDERFUNDED IN COMPARISON TO THE LEVEL OF INDIVIDUAL DISABILITY AND SOCIETAL BURDEN IT CAUSES¹]

  3. Hope for a cure.

    If my common cold can stop migraine, than surely some docs can figure it out.

Here’s to hope.

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