Newton spurs an attack…
It was a dark and stormy night… Well, not really. It was neither dark nor stormy where I live in California, but it was stormy elsewhere. In fact, a hurricane recently ripped through Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, up Baja, across the Sea of Cortez, and into northern Mexico and southern Arizona. It was a strong Category 1 storm. The Weather Channel reported three deaths. Five inches of rain fell…all 500-plus miles south east of where I live.
We were affected. By ‘we’ I mean the thousands of migraineurs who can attribute their symptoms to changes in weather.
In the migraine.com survey, Migraine in America: 2016, 81% of respondents said their symptoms are triggered by weather or changes in barometric pressure. I took the survey and said “Aye” to that. Since, sadly, storms are rare on the Central Coast of California, I cannot seem to remember between storms that I might have a migraine attack.
I remember my grandmother predicting the weather when an old injury to her arm started to ache. A storm’s a-comin,’ she’d say. However, when Hurricane Newton came within about 500 miles of us, upsetting our predictably perfect Mediterranean climate with cloud cover, higher-than-normal humidity, and lower-than-normal barometric pressure, I got sick. I didn’t remember that a dark and stormy night is bad for the majority of migraine sufferers even though I had just taken the poll. I am an 81 percenter.
Still, I was caught by surprise and could not make the connection. I spent hours playing the ‘cause-and-effect game’ I like to play when I do get a migraine. ‘Let’s see, was it: A) sugar; B) lack of sleep; C) stress; or D) travel?’ I’ll take E) None of the above. It was Newton. I’ll pass on making an analogy between Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and my migraine…
Fifty-nine percent of the poll respondents also said that migraines vary somewhat or greatly across attacks. That is certainly the case with the triggers I have been able to isolate. A migraine triggered by a change in the weather feels more like a sinus headache. It is still unilateral but feels like there is a build-up of pressure in my head. Other migraines usually present with similar unilateral pain, but the pain is different. It’s a sharp pain.
There are more similarities to my symptoms—independent of what I think triggers the attack—than there are differences. Newton brought nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, tinnitus, and profound fatigue and malaise. Check, check, check check, and check. It was a migraine—no mistaking it, but I was really struggling to pinpoint the trigger.
When I was in my 20’s I would regularly wake up with headaches that felt like sinus headaches. I was living in Maryland until I was about 30. The mid-Atlantic states are far more prone to variations in weather and barometric pressure. The old adage—If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes—certainly seems to apply there. My mother got sinus headaches and was diagnosed with sinusitis. So, she diagnosed me with sinusitis, too. I ate lots of chicken soup and took lots of antihistamines. Both made me feel better. Thanks, Mom.
About 5 years ago, however, my neurologist, while collecting some patient history, said that I should consider any head pain to be migraine related. It took me some time to reflect on my young adult- and child-hood to see that my sinusitis was really a migraine. I should have known. My mother’s sinusitis did not upset her stomach, cause ringing in her ears, or make her dizzy.
I think the takeaway from my Newtonian experience, is two-fold: First, I can beat myself up over isolating the trigger. I think some thoughtful refection on our triggers is critical to learning to head off attacks. However, I think stressing to figure out the role Newton played as a trigger may have only made my migraine more intense. My stress also may have prolonged the symptoms. Newton stuck around for a day. My symptoms lasted three.
Second, just like I watch what I eat and drink, get plenty of rest, monitor my stress levels, avoid smoky and smelly situations, I need to watch the weather. It’s 72 degrees and sunny here today. But another dark and story night will eventually come, and I can try to be prepared.
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