Migraine Versus Music

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that music has incredible therapeutic applications to improve people’s overall health, but most of us don’t need to read a study or visit a music therapist to understand the potential benefits of a musical life. While tapping our feet to pop tunes at the grocery store, or grimacing at the tragic choice of radio station at the dentist’s office, it’s pretty obvious that music can have a real effect on our mood and wellbeing. Most of us have music in our personal collection that can take us back in time, make us feel less alone, or even bring on some cathartic waterworks.

I have always been a firm believer in the power of music. For most of my life, I have immersed myself in it for hours every day. Nothing was more fun in daycare as when we stood in a circle and made a racket with movement and singing. As student in elementary school, choral singing helped to give me a sense of belonging, community, purpose, worth, and even a better understanding of local history and traditions. As a teen, music kept me sane. I had the great fortune to sing and play in multiple musical ensembles, and when I wasn’t making music, I had angsty pop music coursing through my ear buds and into my brain.

Music was my life. But when chronic migraine came to town, I had to quit choir practice (those high soprano notes, ouch!), quit teaching music (9a.m. rehearsal meant migraine by 9:15!), and most of the time even listening to music was too triggering to tolerate. Thus I was presented with one of the many paradoxes people with migraine must negotiate daily: one of the things that was good for me, that brought me joy and healing, was now a trigger for debilitating symptoms. So just as I practically gave up on exercise, certain foods, and socializing, I gave up my musical life, cold turkey.

How awful to have disabling pain exacerbated by the one thing you cherish more than any other activity in the world.

My divorce from music lasted years, and in hindsight, that was a pretty extreme move. Recently, I have come to a very important realization: if an activity or food is a migraine trigger for me, but it’s also an integral part of my happiness and identity, then it’s probably a bad idea to cut it out of my life entirely. Instead, I’ve come to understand that moderation is key, and that while exercise, music, and socializing do indeed bring on migraine attacks sometimes, I still benefit from their healing qualities enough to let them in my life now and then. This new philosophy has had broad implications: because I willingly participate in activities knowing full-well that they might result in an attack, when the migraine does happen, I’m less likely to lay on the self blame, and more likely to think, that was worth it.

I still can’t tolerate loud clangy sounds, so playing piano is still mostly off the table, but I’m trying to make music a part of every day now. Even if it’s half an hour of low, gentle, music with my ear plugs in, it feels good to return to my favorite activity, and I suspect when I play it right, the benefits outweigh the potential for pain.

This summer I might even try taking The Migraine Girl’s advice, and venture to an outdoor concert where I can sit very veeeery far away from the stage. Wish me luck :)


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