My Head Has Had Enough

Imagine it:

A Wednesday night in downtown Austin. It’s still insanely hot. Traffic is in full force. The sun is just setting. There’s an smell in the air that could only be described as part noxious sewer, part suffocating asphalt, and part I-just-don’t-want-to-know.

I walk out of a kickboxing class, soaked with sweat, red faced, limps shaking like the legs of a newborn baby deer. I flop into my car, turn on the ignition, and look up through the windshield, ready to head home and gorge myself on tortellini.

And for a split second, I see a little flicker in the center of my field of vision.

It wasn’t enough to signal that I was about to experience a night from hell, but about thirty minutes later, when my sight was about 75% blocked by gray splotches and rainbow strobing zigzags, it occurred to me that it had been the first warning of an incoming migraine which disabled me the rest of the night and for the entirety of the next day.

I experience migraines rarely (I even went through a period of about ten years during which I didn’t experience one), but when I do they’re usually pretty terrifying with auras that can fully block out my sight in at least one eye and even cause numbness in my hands and face. The following pain isn’t as bad as many migraine sufferers experience, but it’s often accompanied with high levels of exhaustion, nausea, and sometimes disorientation.

Before aura vs during aura

So what causes migraines? Well, for my kind of migraine (also known as hemiplegic migraines), the main causes are stress, bright lights, intense emotions, and too much or too little sleep, but monthly hormone changes, shifts in the weather, and certain foods can also contribute to a migraine occurrence. With that in mind, I’m a little surprised that I don’t have more migraines as, ahem, all of the above apply to me in some way.

So what can I do while I’m in the midst of a migraine? Well, to be honest, migraines are just kind of something you have to suffer through. Pain killers such as Tylenol and Excedrin can lower the amount of pain felt, and some people are even prescribed medications for high blood pressure or seizures to decrease to number and severity of their headaches. Ultimately though, if you get migraines, you’re going to feel it no matter what you do.

I personally just like to sleep through them, but during those times when I can’t (at work or traveling), there is one thing that I turn to that can help alleviate migraine symptoms temporarily, at least until I am in a place where I can rest: coffee.

Oh, yes. Coffee.

Okay, so this isn’t completely backed up with scientific evidence, and many people have reported the exact opposite of what I’m about to say, but I have found that caffeine can help alleviate pain when experiencing a headache. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Caffeine can increase the absorption rate of pain medications. That’s why you see caffeine as an ingredient in medications such as Excedrin Migraine and Midol.
  2. It blocks adenosine. Adenosine is a substance found in the brain, and it has been discovered that levels of adenosine increase during migraines. Caffeine blocks the receptors that adenosine interacts with, so while it is not certain how this interaction can affect a migraine or headache, it could possibly be the reason for a decrease of migraine severity.
  3. Coffee has been noted to have anti-inflammatory properties, and since blood vessels in the head inflame during migraines and headaches, it is theorized that coffee could help counteract this effect.

Now with that being said, caffeine dependency is listed as a cause of more standard migraines, and many people report having severe headaches on the weekend as the result of having coffee later in the day after sleeping in. It has also been highly suggested that those who suffer from migraines regularly should give up caffeine completely as it can actually exacerbate the problem. In other words, moderation is, of course, key (as it is with all things), and chronic sufferers should take extra care in what they consume.

Unfortunately, research around the whole issue of migraines is hardly definitive, and the more I read up on the subject, the more I realize we still have a lot to learn about the condition and how to treat it. As much as I would like to have some relief for my headaches, I highly doubt we’ll find an effective solution for them in my lifetime.

So in the meantime, I guess I’ll stick with what I know. Coffee.

Do you suffer from migraines? Do you find caffeine helps or worsens your symptoms? I’d love to hear more, so please feel free to write about your experiences in the comments below.

Until next time,

The one and the only Pookachino


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