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anne mikolayBack in my Wall Street days, I worked with a woman who suffered migraines. Her headaches were so frequent that not many people, myself included, had much sympathy for her. We just didn't believe a person could be sidelined by so many headaches! On one occasion, this woman claimed to have a headache so severe she couldn't think straight, and her boss put her in a cab and sent her home. Her co-workers whispered suspiciously about the incident for days, but you know what they say. What goes around, comes around.

I'm proof.

Many years later, while chatting with my sister, I suddenly felt as though I was whacked upside the head with a brick. The left side of my head hurt like never before, and believe it or not, the pain stayed with me every day, all day, for seven excruciating months. Local physicians didn't know what to do with me. Sounds more like science fiction than truth, and I never would have believed a headache could last months it if it hadn't happened to me. Shortly thereafter, while under the care of a top New York neurologist, I learned my condition (and that of my Wall Street co-worker) is shockingly common. It even has a name: intractable migraine disease. About.com provides a clear definition of intractable migraine: “sustained, severe migraine and accompaniments that are not effectively terminated by standard outpatient intervention. May evolve to a chronic and continuing form, similar to chronic daily headache.” In layman's terms, that's a whopper of a headache that does not respond to common medication.

Migraines are as unique as the individual and often present with pre-migraine aura of flashing lights, light sensitivity, vertigo, dizziness, piercing pains in the head, nausea, feinting. I'm well familiar with all the foregoing symptoms, as well as the “foggy” thought patterns that accompany a bad migraine, and the soreness that lingers in my skull after the migraine ends. Migraine, I have learned firsthand, is not a “regular” headache. It's a neurological event suffered by 29.5 million Americans, 80% of whom have a family history of migraines.

So what's to be done about it? The most important tool in the battle against migraines is a knowledgeable neurologist (like those at the Headache Institute at New York's Roosevelt Hospital). Primary care physicians (and local neurologists) do not have enough information about current treatments for migraine to offer effective care to a chronic migraineur (that's what they call us...fancy word for migraine sufferers). A good neurologist will break the headache cycle and prescribe medications to combat future headaches. (Beware of self-medicating with excess Tylenol or Motrin which can trigger rebound headache that will complicate the migraine.) 

There are products on the market to help migraine sufferers. I rely on Coralite Cooling Headache Pads during the day (sold in packs of three on Amazon.com and in local pharmacies for $9.99) and an old-fashioned ice bag at night to help me sleep. There's a new product called Chillow that is marketed as cooling migraine relief. (I have a Chillow, but have not yet used it, so I can't address its effectiveness.) Sometimes, the only thing that will help a migraine sufferer is sleeping the headache away.

If you suffer migraines, you are in good company. A list of migraineurs includes: painter Vincent Van Gogh, author Lewis Carroll, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Anne Frank, Thomas Jefferson, Loretta Lynn, John F. Kennedy, Lisa Kudrow, Whoopi Goldberg, Gwyneth Paltrow. The list goes on and on.

I wish I had been more accommodating and sympathetic toward my Wall Street comrade. Sadly, I did   not know enough about migraine at the time to be supportive; painful firsthand experience has taught me a migraine is not caused by stress or heightened emotional sensitivity. It's a painful, disturbing neurological event requiring understanding, rest, quiet, and treatment by a knowledgeable neurologist.

And for the record, I began Migraine Awareness Week...with a migraine. Where's my Chillow?