“Migraine is not just a headache”

May 2013 is the Month of the Brain. This is the occasion for all neurological disorders to champion their cause. Audrey Craven, the current President of the European Federation of Neurological Associations (EFNA), shares her experience of living with disabling migraine.

I had been living with disabling migraine for many years before I founded the Migraine Association of Ireland (MAI). It affected me on two to three days of every week, but I never knew which days it was going to strike. Symptoms would include an intense throbbing headache, vomiting and diarrhea, sensitivity to light, sounds and smells – and stroke-like symptoms such as slurred speech, numbness and even fainting. This meant that I was unable to function and would be confined to a darkened room. I could not work, socialise, and adequately care for my three young children. The impact on my quality of life was immense. My mental wellbeing was suffering as I felt isolated and alone. People would dismiss it as ‘just a headache’ – not knowing that headache is just one of many symptoms.  And worst of all, no medication worked to cure or ease my symptoms.

Then, in the early 90’s a new form of migraine medications called ‘triptans’ came on the market. These revolutionised my life and allowed me to be well enough to found the Migraine Association and work, in a voluntary capacity, as a patient advocate.

The triptan drugs target specific groups of serotonin receptors in the brain that are known to be closely involved in migraine attacks. There are now a wide variety of triptan drugs available, and 80% of sufferers will find one that works for them within two hours of the onset of an attack. However, there is still a lack of option for the 20% of people for whom triptans do not work as well as for the children, the pregnant and the elderly for whom these drugs are not licensed.

Triptans are also not a cure. They are designed to be taken early on in the attack to stop its progression. Moreover many migraine preventatives are non-specific – meaning people will take a small daily dose of an anti-depressant, anti-epileptic or beta-blocker drug. Therefore, we need to continue to campaign for further research into a cure for migraine. We also need to know the exact cause! This is the case for most neurological disorders.

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