Do migraines derail your life and your work?

by Rachel Smith
20 July 2020

Updated July 2020

The other night, watching TV, I started to experience a familiar feeling: the edges of my sight went fuzzy and a heaviness settled onto my forehead. I dreaded the onset of these seemingly minor symptoms, because I knew from experience that when I woke up the next morning I would be in the grip of a brutal migraine.

I’ve only suffered migraines since having a kid (before then, I barely ever had headaches at all). My migraines are distinctive. They always start with the fuzzy sight / aura thing, and when they settle in, it’s like someone is trying to dig around my eyeball (or jackhammer around it, depending on how bad the migraine is). Eventually the pain around my eye settles around my entire head, like someone is pressing hard all over my skull.

And if you can be a ‘lucky’ migraine sufferer, I know I probably am one: mine usually start at 5am and last til 2pm and then I emerge from my doona cocoon, fragile and shaky but able to plug back into life. I know others whose migraines last for days on end, and I have no idea how they handle it. I know a woman who works as a nanny, suffers daily from migraines and has done since she was a child. She told me she sometimes goes to bed if they’re really bad but has otherwise learned to live with the pain. Chronic migraine sufferers like this woman reportedly have more than 15 a month. I generally have one a month (and it’s one too many), but like 90 percent of migraine sufferers I am completely unable to function during one.

Apparently, 3 million Aussies suffer migraines – with more women sufferers than men. The condition costs the economy $1 billion per year and account for 20 percent of all lost work days due to illness, according to Professor Paul Martin from Griffiths University in QLD. He says he’s having good success treating migraine patients with cognitive behavioural therapy. But overall, there are no clinical guidelines for treating migraine – which I think translates as, ‘GPs have no flipping idea how to fix it’.

I know there are a heap of meds out there, with some promising ones on the market. Imigran works for me along with an icepack or a really cold compress on my head, and a few hours sleeping it off. Once, when I was having migraines twice a week (caused by sleep deprivation according to my GP, whose helpful-not-helpful advice was to ‘get more sleep’), I desperately popped Codeine like it was going out of style. And then I started having rebound migraines, which was all kinds of fun. I literally wanted to crawl, climb, claw my way out of my own head.

I know some of my triggers and try to mitigate them: not enough sleep, too much stress, exposure to fluroescent light bulbs. I also find that worrying excessively about a particular issue or being very upset about something that I can’t manage can also bring on a bad migraine, for some reason. These days, I feel lucky to only have one once a month-ish.

As a freelancer, migraines cause their own unique stress. You have to let clients and editors know when you can barely look at a screen – and know you may be putting them out by delaying copy. The unpredictability of migraine can make you look unprofessional. I try to build in buffers on deadlines in case a migraine hits. And I’m increasingly building a group of fellow journos who can offer back-up if I do find myself in the position of having a non-negotiable deadline – but being unable to finish my work due to a migraine.

Do you get migraines? How often, and what do you do for them? How do you work around them?

Rachel Smith
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7 responses on "Do migraines derail your life and your work?"

  1. Hi Rachel,

    You’re definitely not alone. I don’t know when my migraines started in life (as a child) but I get the whole hog – extreme photosensitivity, excruciating pain (there’s probably not a word to describe it really, but I liked your attempt), can’t tolerate noise, throwing up – I just have to crawl into bed in a dark room and wait, for hours, for oblivion. It takes about 3 days to recover. Like you, I’m always aware it could happen at any time and try to build in buffers around work to accommodate it. It’s interesting, I didn’t know 3 million Australians suffer from migraines. I do know that 10 of us could be in one room together and there would be 10 or more different triggers for our migraines. Good luck with them.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Oh Jeanette! That sounds horrendous. Mine are definitely on the mild end of the scale considering what some people have to go through. The pain is awful, but I don’t throw up and they only last a day at most. Here’s hoping the breaks until the next one are loooong for both of us!

  2. I think you’re right Rachel – migraines definitely add a particular kind of stress to life if you’re a freelancer. I’ve been known to be hunched over my computer proof trying to reading madly as my vision starts to go, so that I can send off a promised document before the migraine properly kicks off.
    I never found any solid triggers for mine (although like you fluro lights aren’t great but I also feel super sensitive to citrus fruit and choc just before a migraine hits). After many years of horrendous headaches and migraines, tried beta blockers and they’ve been a life changer.
    I’m sorry to hear they’ve been a regular part of your life recently, they’re debilitating. You are definitely not alone in experiencing them.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Going to look into those beta blockers, Lindy – and yep, that image of you hunched over the computer trying to send something before the migraine settles in is SO familiar!
      Have a great (headache-free I hope) weekend!

  3. ROBYN SHORT says:

    That must be awful Rachel and Jeannette. Healing messages not easy to express, and please know others concerned. I’ve had friends who’ve suffered, and excruciatingly. I agree with not becoming reliant on meds as have had other afflictions where the stongest meds absolutely necessary, and can sympathise the dilemma using them.
    Flags flying in you’re directions for a smoother weekend.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Thanks heaps Robyn, I’m crossing my fingers for a lovely pain-free weekend! That is, if you don’t count getting up early with a toddler haha!

  4. I empathise. Migraines used to leave me incapacitated, lying in a darkened room in agony, sometimes for days. I tried every remedy. Then in the late 1990s, I was prescribed Imigran nasal spray. It lifts my migraines within a few hours and has made a dramatic difference. The active ingredient sumatrapin works by narrowing blood vessels around the brain and reducing pain signals. See details about sumatripin at MedicineNet: http://www.medicinenet.com/sumatriptan/article.htm or NPS MedicineWise: https://www.nps.org.au/medical-info/medicine-finder/imigran-nasal-spray

    There are quite a lot of cautions in taking it. Speak to your GP to find out if it is right for you.(Happy to share this info with fellow migraine sufferers in Rachel’s group, but please do not quote my email outside of this forum!)

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