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It’s Hard to Believe These Are Migraine Symptoms (But They Are)

Working on an Migraine.com article about all the migraine symptoms that most people have no idea are related to migraine reminded me of the list of symptoms I made for my internist in 2008. The list of all the weird things happening in my body that seemed to have no explanation was more than a page long. My doctor had no idea what they could point to. Now I know that, except for cold sores, they were all migraine symptoms.

I’m a little uncomfortable sharing such a private list, but I think it’s important to show some of the possible varied and strange migraine symptoms, as well as how severe migraine can be. Most of them are direct migraine symptoms, but some were a result of migraine symptoms (like tingling arms, which was part of a cascade of physical reactions due to constant neck pain that ultimately resulted in pinched nerves). Certain symptoms were so normal that I didn’t even think to include them on the list, like tooth sensitivity, earaches, eye irritation, or neck pain. Others were such common migraine symptoms that I didn’t mention them. Still others I was embarrassed to reveal, like hallucinating sounds.

It’s odd to think that we can be in our bodies and still not be able to figure out what’s going on or dismiss the signals that something’s not working right. But we do it all the time. I have lived with chronic migraine for the vast majority of my life and have been writing about it for nearly 10 years. Still, it’s only been in the last year that I’ve been able to connect the last of these weird symptoms to migraine.

This list doesn’t represent all of my symptoms or even the worst I experienced, but they came shortly after the turning point when my illness went from bad to terrible, in June 2007. My symptoms continued to worsen for another 2.5 years. I lived it and still have trouble believing how incredibly sick I was. It’s no wonder people without migraine have no idea how severe this illness can be.

Symptom Summary for Kerrie Smyres, 4/7/08

ACUTE

Nausea

  • Current biggest concern
  • Increases over first hour each day
  • Food usually decreases for 1-2 hours

Feeling faint, lightheaded, blacking out (also chronic)

  • Worsened by standing up, exercise
  • Blackouts (either last less than 30 seconds or until I wake up)

Vertigo

  • Usually mild; moderate
  • Diagnosed with Meneire’s without hearing loss, 2000

Sensitivity to exertion/exercise

  • Walking a half mile = feeling faint, lightheaded, exhausted
  • Gentle yoga triggers pounding headache

Fatigue

  • Bones feel heavy and tired
  • Nap 3 hours/day at least 5 days/week (from 2 hours a year ago)

Meltdowns

  • Become unreasonable, irritable, exhausted
  • Get lightheaded, woozy
  • Often no obvious trigger; sometimes triggered by hunger, bright lights, crowds

Other

  • 15 lb. weight loss since June 2007
  • Night sweats, chills, shivering
  • Hands, arms tingle 3-5x/night
  • Can’t get workspace bright enough when lighting was once fine (in kitchen, at desk)
  • Whooshing in ears, like blood pulsing; worse during migraine
  • Vision bounces/pulses always; worse during migraine
  • Sudden decreased hearing & ringing in left ear; my voice echoes
  • Canker sores, cold sores
  • Heat intolerance
  • Hand tremor
  • Constipation
  • Nasal congestion
  • Constant thirst, drink 100-150 oz water/day

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Physical Therapy: Weak Muscles, Scar Tissue & Posture

Physical therapy looks like a promising migraine/headache treatment for me. We made progress in the first two sessions and my third tomorrow. His take makes a lot of sense to me.

Weak muscles in my back are partly to blame for neck pain. Envision your back as a lollipop stem. The tasty part of the lollipop will be firmly on top if the stem is solid. If not, the candy will flop around on the stick.

When your neck isn’t sturdy on its stem, it also moves around. Muscles and tissue tighten to compensate, moving muscle, tissue and bone out of place. Strengthening little used muscles, which align the neck and hold its correct position, is part of the solution.

Built up scar tissue on the left side of my neck is another culprit. The scars have essentially fused two muscles, keeping both from working properly. Myofascial release from my physical and massage therapists will loosen the scar tissue, although it is so old that some will remain.

Interestingly, the scar tissue isn’t on the right side, where my occipital nerve stimulator wires were. The physical therapist believes it is connected to car accidents I had in high school. No injuries were treated after the accidents because I didn’t notice any. Yet, he said even the most minor accident could have contributed.

I’m working on my posture too. Instead of pushing my shoulders down, which I’ve always thought was the way to correct bad posture, I’m lifting my sternum to be upright. Looking in the mirror, my “corrected” posture looks strange, but it feels great.

My treatment path is promising. Still, I wonder if I’m just searching for a culprit. Time and time again, anything possibly connected to my migraines becomes my focus. After a particular treatment doesn’t work, I move to the next explanation with as much fervor as the last.

I’m fond of this one for now. It echoes what I’ve learned from yoga and massage therapy and repetition is reassuring. My fingers are crossed and my outlook is good.

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Finding the Right Pillow to Ease Neck Pain

I woke up this morning without the wrenching neck pain I’ve the last couple years. The secret of my success? Stacking two pillows much higher than I thought I needed.

As a side sleeper, I thought the pillow should hold my head the same distance from my shoulder as when I’m standing up. But I went through 11 pillows in a year without relief. Judging the distance between ear and shoulder nearly impossible when you’re lying down. I was worried about getting my head too high — until last night.

Two pillows seemed impossibly uncomfortable when I settled in. Hart even questioned my Great Pillow Experiment. The trial was successful. Turns out I need voluminous fluff to fill the space.

Not only did my neck feel better, my head has been happy so far today. One night’s evidence is laughable by the scientific method, yet I’m buoyed by the results. My solution isn’t perfect for everyone, but may be worth a shot. How much harm could it do? If it hurts too much, you’ll be awake within an hour or two and can adjust it.

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Less Neck & Shoulder Pain Equals a Happier Head: The Joys of Massage, Menthol Muscle Rub & Yoga

My neck and shoulders are finally loose enough to reduce my migraines and headaches. (Knock on wood.) After years of trying to treat them with no success, I assumed my neck and shoulders were destined to be tight.

After four months of intense, frequent massage and myofascial release, I feel like a new woman. The benefits have become so evident in the last week because I’m finally doing some regular yoga practices and am smearing my back with menthol muscle rub nightly.

No dibs and dabs for me — this is a heavy-duty layer of sticky, smelly menthol balm. I fight the chills for the first 30 minutes I’m in bed and the smell is migrating from our bedroom to the hall. No matter, I really do feel better.

I had some success with Woodlock Oil a year ago, but backed off when I learned that artificial menthol is made with turpentine. Since then I’ve searched in vain for a product with naturally occurring menthol — not that there’s any way to really tell. Clearly, I’ve given in. (I just realized that I could contact companies directly. I may not learn much, but it will be more than I know now.)

I try to do some chest, neck and shoulder focused yoga stretches each morning and before I go to bed. The stretches are so helpful that fitting them in my day is no longer a chore. The best part? The effects are immediate.

Now I’m looking for a good muscle balm. What do you recommend? I’ve tried:

  • Biofreeze: My favorite so far
  • Sombra: My massage therapist used this yesterday; not greasy or too stinky.
  • Jason Mineral Gel: Doesn’t smell to bad, but smeared like crazy
  • Safeway Generic: Smeared on the side of my face and irritated my eyes all night

Cinnamon muscle balm is a great option if you don’t want to smell like menthol. Just know that I may scream and run the other way if I smell you.

I only have a week of relief under my belt. Who knows if it will continue. Even if my migraines eventually thwart the benefits, my muscles no longer being bound up is at least a blessing to my back.

Many thanks to Linz who recommended myofascial release, my lovely yoga teacher Kelly, and the fabulous acupuncturist and massage therapist I’ve seen. If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in seeing any of my healthcare providers, send me an e-mail for contact information.