Among other things, I am a migraineur.  Which is a cool, lovely-sounding French name for “person who gets migraine headaches.”

I know several people who say they get migraine headaches.  I’m not sure all of them do.  Migraines are different for each person, as different as fingerprints, but they are more than simply a very bad headache.

I am one of the 20-30% of “classic” migraine sufferers who get an aura before the headache.  The aura is a visual disturbance that usually begins in the peripheral vision and closes in, or sweeps by the field of vision.  Meaning, yes, you see things. I got my first one when I was 10 years old, and I was terrified; I thought I was going blind.

The aura manifests differently for different people, but what I see is closest to this:

migraine aura

A migraine aura

My auras start as a tiny spot in my field of vision, usually the lower-left.  It’s a blind spot with flashing lights in it. If you have never experienced one, the closest I can describe it is when you squeeze your eyes shut really tightly and you start to see a light pattern.  This is similar, but not exact.   My little flashing spot usually grows in size and shape, featuring the zig-zag flashing lights pattern (or scintillating scotoma), sometimes growing into a crescent shape as the above image, but not always.   It also progresses across the field of vision in some direction.  I’ve heard some people’s auras are black and white; mine are in color, but usually only warm colors – red, orange and yellow, and white.  The aura is opaque; you cannot see through it, and worst of all, for me, it is there whether your eyes are open or closed, so you cannot escape it, even by lying down with your eyes closed, or by dimming the room. Other people have blurred or blacked-out areas in their field of vision, or even a kaleidoscope effect.  Examples of migraine art can demonstrate how many different manifestations there are.

For me, the aura is a good thing.  It is a warning sign for me to quickly take some pain medication to stave off the excruciating headache, which I can usually do with 4 ibuprofen.  Others are not so lucky.

Migraines can be caused by any number of triggers.  The most common ones are wine, chocolate, aged cheese, MSG, aspartame (i.e., Equal), stress, bright lights, shift work changes, weather changes and hormones.  My triggers are usually stress, a change in barometric pressure (before a thunderstorm), or hormonal changes.  Caffeine overuse and withdrawal can trigger them too, although caffeine itself can sometimes help treat the migraine (Excedrin Migraine contains caffeine). Knowing your triggers can help with prevention.

I’m also lucky in that I don’t get them very frequently — a few times a year, which does not really warrant a specific migraine medication.  Some people can get them weekly or even daily, and they can last for days at a time, which can be utterly debilitating to the point of disability.

While migraines are horribly painful and can severely affect quality of life, I find them somewhat fascinating in terms of the brain and neurology. There is evidence that they are related to epileptic seizures.  There are actually four distinct phases of a migraine, and people can have symptoms both before and after the actual headache. Knowing the symptoms during the prodrome phase can also aid prevention or treatment, especially if you have a child who suffers from them.

There is also likely a hereditary component to migraines.  My grandmother had them, my two sisters get them, and I only recently learned my mother gets them as well — but she gets ocular migraines: the aura without the headache.  Interestingly in our family it seems to be only the women that get them, although migraines are usually more common in women than men.

Though it may be little solace, migraineurs are in good company.  Many famous people have been migraine sufferers, and the conditionhas perhaps influenced their creativity at times: painters Vincent Van Gogh, George Seurat, and Claude Monet; writers Virginia Woolfe, Cervantes and Lewis Carroll; leaders Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Mary Todd Lincoln; Joan of Arc and Charles Darwin; scholars Sigmund Freud and Frederich Nietzsche; and entertainers Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Carly Simon, among countless others.

There are endless resources on the internet about migraines that can help you, if you suffer from them, or know someone who does.