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How I 'Diffuse' a Migraine Before It 'Detonates'

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After years of learning what triggers will detonate the bomb in my brain, I have managed to balance activity and rest. This post is about avoiding denotation. Perhaps my insight can be applied to your own experiences, but you must know I am not a medical professional.

I am a warrior.

I battle pain every minute of every day. This has been my reality for many years. Sometimes, I win the fight and I am able to do everything on my to-do list. When I lose the battle with chronic pain, I self-destruct. The detonation is the explosion of a migraine. The effect is contained and isolated, but catastrophic. I see violent red and black. I hear shrieking that echoes for hours, no matter how quiet my environment. Moving hurts, stillness hurts. Even in sleep, I dream of running from an external threat but ultimately being beaten and broken. In reality, there is no escape.

My war started with infrequent battles, worrisome enough for my first CT scan to be ordered when I was 2 years old. By age 10, I had been hospitalized multiple times for weekly migraines. The next year, I spent every weekend for months in the ER because I couldn’t keep down food or water due to migraine pain. Eventually, we adjusted my medicines and this pattern broke.

By age 16, I had daily head pain. Migraines came often. I developed mini-explosions throughout the day, small bursts of lightning that lasted between a few seconds and several minutes. When the pain didn’t pass, I retreated to bed with a cool compress over my eyes and an icepack on my neck. Every migraine passed with time, only to shrink back and wait for the next opportunity to strike me. Alone with my dark thoughts, I felt defeated.


My bleak battle with pain does have a silver lining: I’ve adopted a lifestyle that mitigates triggers and severely cuts down on my pain detonation. I have found that the best way to diffuse a migraine is to avoid my triggers. While triggers vary from person to person, mine include sudden exposure to bright, flashing lights, sustained loud or annoying noises, lack of sleep, strong scents (especially smoke), overexertion, and any object rushing toward my face. Cloudy weatherpoor nutrition and crying are other potential triggers that can detonate a migraine for me.

On one occasion during my senior year of high school, I ignored a migraine to join my a cappella group caroling around an outdoor mall. It was a grey, cloudy day. I had not slept well. I was exposed to loud sounds as I was surrounded by my choral group because, you know, singing. Although it didn’t seem like much physical exertion at the time, we walked all over downtown several times over. I’m pretty sure my only breakfast was Skittles because – TMI alert – I puked the rainbow. To recap, that is trigger (cloudy), trigger (lack of sleep), trigger (loud sounds), trigger (overexertion), trigger (poor nutrition) and, bam, detonation (migraine). I missed nearly a full week of school after those few hours of caroling.

In the years since high school, I have come up with a balancing act to avoid migraine detonation. Through trial and error, I have discovered how to approach my triggers without an explosion of debilitating pain. While staying mindful of consequences, I am well-versed at deconstructing a task. For example, as a college student, I knew I could never stay up all night to write an essay or study for an exam. Instead, I had to stay on task each day leading up to a due date. In the 11th hour, I was calm and collected (and often sleeping peacefully). That’s right: I made it through college without a single all-nighter, and still graduated with a 3.6 upper division major GPA.

People with chronic pain have to become experts on their own bodies. They have to experiment with doctors, medications, limits and the kooky things people suggest. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all when it comes to migraines or pain. Pain management is an individualized journey. Diffusing a migraine takes a highly specialized toolkit. Here are a few of the tools and techniques I have found most useful:

Patience. Patience with my body, my doctors, my family and my healing. Pain cannot be rushed, so patience is an essential part of preventing a migraine attack as well as managing through a detonation.

Meditation. I know it sounds like one of the kooky things a stranger in the supermarket swears cured her great aunt, but I have been using a meditation app since October with great personal success. I take 10 (or 20) minutes to breathe, notice my emotional state, scan my body, sit in silence and abstain from activity. Since starting a daily mindfulness meditation practice in October 2016, I have not refilled my migraine prescription. I am still amazed by that.

Sleep. I take melatonin nightly (some studies even indicate melatonin might fight off migraines). I personally take a three-mg dissolvable tablet from CVS. It doesn’t always help me fall asleep or stay asleep, and I don’t automatically get a headache if I skip a night or two, but I think it helps overall.

Low acid coffee. I know caffeine is a migraine trigger for some people, so try this one out with caution. I avoid caffeine on weekends, but I do appreciate a cup in the morning to help me start my day productively. I like low acid coffee specifically because I’ve noticed a tie in between stomach aches and head pain, and the regular variety tends to give me acid reflux symptoms.

Gentle yoga. Another common “cure-all” that actually has some scientific proof, restorative yoga may be beneficial for people prone to headaches. Admittedly, when I start to feel symptoms, I do not reach for my mat but if you’d like to, try these poses. I like restorative yoga classes because I have found the atmosphere to be quite beneficial for healing with low lights and soft music. The pace is slower than a typical class, as poses are held for many minutes as opposed to a flow through many asanas in rapid succession. I try to go to a class once a week and practice on my own to supplement. My friend Nisha has a YouTube channel with gentle yoga sessions, such as this one for yoga before bed (on a mat or on your bed) and this one for jaw pain. I’m really proud of her and her videos are simple, approachable and applicable to just about anyone. Since I am concerned about triggering a migraine with overexertion, I have found an at-home yoga practice to be something that easily fits in with my fluctuating daily physical ability.

To maintain my migraine-free streak, I know I need to continue utilizing all the tools in my kit. I do not consider myself cured: I know the right circumstances will detonate another migraine and I will have no choice but to wait it out. However, I know I can diffuse the situation by keeping my life constant and stress low. I encourage any readers who experience chronic migraines to become an expert in their bodies and take the offensive approach to managing a life with constant threat of migraines.

Fight on.

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Thinkstock photo via RomoloTavani.

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Originally published: June 1, 2017
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