No Longer a Stranger

When I think of my migraines, I imagine a Stranger hiding in the shadows, watching me as I walk down a dark street. He stalks me, waiting to pounce on me and beat me down. This Stranger has known me since I was six years old, but I know very little about him. And just when I think I know he is going to make a move, he changes things up. I swing and miss.

I suffered my very first migraine when I was six years old and on a family vacation. We were eating breakfast in the hotel when I noticed my toast had a shiny glare to it – almost like I’d stared at a light too long and saw an afterglow. My stomach instantly turned and I told my dad I wasn’t feeling well – that I might throw up – which I promptly did. In his hands while we were in the elevator. What a dad.

The throbbing pain started soon after. The rest of the day was spent in bed, in the darkened hotel room.

My parents chalked it up to a food reaction – I must have eaten too much mint chocolate chip ice cream the night before. Unfortunately, the answer wasn’t so simple.

I continued to get visits from my stranger. My Stranger gave me many clues about his identity but they always led to a dead-end. My pediatrician was baffled and told me to take sinus medication. A teacher told me to “stop feeling sorry for myself” and get back to my studies.

And then my Stranger vanished for years. Until my teenage years. Every so often he’d jump out with a “surprise” and give me a sucker punch. Every time I felt a familiar rush of euphoria followed by a visual aura, I would say, “This isn’t happening. I’m not getting a migraine. I’m not.” Until I had accept that I was.

Blinded by flashy lights and tunnel vision, I could only crawl into bed and turn out the lights. Hours later, the one-sided sledgehammer pulsations would spontaneously stop. But the next day I would be unable to bend over without having a pounding rush inside my head.

I couldn’t predict what would bring my stranger out of hibernation. What triggered him to strike? When would he make his next move? I gave up trying to shadowbox him. I began taking Dilantin. The groggy, zombie-like feeling was barely tolerable. I barely managed to keep up with my law school work but at least I was not missing classes or canceling plans.

Par for the course, as I began tolerating the Dilantin my Stranger blind-sided me again. But this time it was different – it was the kind of headache that you’re warned about: “The ‘worst headache like nothing you’ve ever felt” headache.” The kind that scares you to the core and makes you think you’re having an aneurysm.

The pain would start in my upper right shoulder and move up to my neck. Within 24 hours I had a searing pain through the back of my skull, over my forehead and through my right eye. I was paralyzed with pain. I could only get to the bathroom by crawling on the floor. I would vomit until I threw up bile. For three entire days.

This Stranger wasn’t a migraine, but the doctors never told me that. It wasn’t until years later (after reading my disability paperwork) that I saw my diagnosis: I was experiencing cervicogenic headaches. The problem was my cervical spine. The headaches were just a symptom. But my doctor kept calling it a “migraine.”

So, I went from doctor to doctor. I had trigger point injections. I had an occipital nerve block. Considered a rhizotomy (I would have gladly accepted having half of my face numb). At this point I was on Lyrica, Tegretol, muscle relaxants, Toradol injections, and then even morphine. Nothing stopped the pain. Nothing.

I then started getting some numbness in my right hand with tingling in my arm. An MRI revealed a bulging disc at C5-C6. I opted for a fusion. Not to remedy the tingling but in the hopes that it could impact my headaches. After my surgery, I began my physical therapy.

As fate would have it, my physical therapist immediately recognized what was going on. While I do have degenerative disc disease and arthritis, my posture was poor and muscles imbalanced. My neck was like a 90 year old woman, she said. Add to that my teeth clenching and poor stress management, it was no wonder my body was reacting with these headaches.

A few more rounds of physical therapy showed me the connection between my body structure and the headaches. The headaches were a mask of a deeper issue.The day I walked into PT with the beginning of a cervicogenic headache and left pain free after manipulation was the day I realized this “Stranger” may not have to be such a big part of my life anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – I still get them. They are still terrible and last for days. But the Stranger doesn’t visit me as often now that I’m working on my posture and alignment. While I am no longer taking any preventative medication, I have found that a muscle relaxant with a dihydroergotamine mesylate injection helps stop the pain. For now. Like all of the other treatments I’ve tried, I know there will come a day when it no longer works.

And as for my Migraines – I still get them, too. I like to think that my “Strangers” have become family in away. It’s like we are in a bit of a “it’s complicated” relationship status. We aren’t breaking up anytime soon, but for now, we’ve learned to live with one another.

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