Imagine having headaches so painful that they affect your life so profoundly you cannot make it through the day. All you can do is seek out a dark, quiet room and wait, hoping the pain will eventually subside. Athena Knight is one of the roughly 12 percent of the United States population living with migraines, and hers have become increasingly painful over the course of more than 20 years. She was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about her personal experiences with migraine and other chronic pain conditions and to offer advice for others who live with migraine pain.
Migraine headaches are caused by the abnormal activation of nerve fibers within the walls of blood vessels in the membranes surrounding the brain. This can cause throbbing or pulsing pain often on one side of the head that is often (but not always) accompanied by sensitivity to light or noise, nausea, and vomiting.
Now retired from the military, Athena recalls that migraine pain started affecting her following a return from a deployment in Korea in 1999. At this point, the pain began to, in her words, “hit her over the head,” and the headaches eventually worsened to the point where they affected her for at least a couple of days to the point where she could not function.
[“I didn’t deal with them beforehand, and when I came back it just seemed that I ended up going to do the doctor a lot more for them.”]
Eventually Athena’s migraines began to last at least 3 days and return often enough that she was dealing with pain most of the month. When the pain becomes too intense, she said she retreats to a dark room at home where all she can do is try to keep cool, stay away from sounds, and drink water. Ultimately, she felt she had no choice but to see a doctor to help manage her symptoms.
One of the most difficult aspects of treating migraines is that the symptoms vary widely, as do potential treatments. A medicine that works well for one patient may not work well for another or may even make symptoms worse. This was Athena’s experience as she recalls trying several different medications in an attempt to manage her symptoms.
[“…That’s what I’ve always done. What’s the next medicine that would help make it feel better or have it subside? And there are some [medications] that don’t do anything, it just makes it worse.”]
Because of this, Athena said that she has essentially tried every medication available that could potentially help. In addition to traditional treatments, alternative therapies such as acupuncture, relaxation training, Botox injections, or even lifestyle changes in diet and sleep can be helpful for some people. In Athena’s case, acupuncture seems to help in combination with Botox and medications. She emphasized that others experiencing migraines should not write off so-called “alternative therapies” because it’ nearly impossible to tell which treatment will help until you’ve tried it.
[“It’s a combination of everything put together. I’ve tried to keep an open mind, and that’s kind of what helps too. Because I’ve had all of these treatments and medications for migraines, I think it makes a difference to have an open mind, not thinking that one thing is going to be a cure-all. Acupuncture helps. Botox helps. Nortriptyline helps.”]
Stress management is something else that often helps with migraines. The same brain circuits involved in mood and stress responses are also activated in chronic pain conditions, and increased stress can trigger migraines. In addition to her migraines, Athena described living with both PTSD and chronic pain caused by nerve damage in her leg (for which she has had 20 surgeries) and how they affect her migraines, her ability to cope with them, and her overall stress levels.
[“When I work out, or when I am able to work out, I’ll feel much better. Working out for me is a key thing, but I’m also at the point where I am very limited on doing it now. So I have to depend on using medications. Because of everything my body has been through, I think it has definitely been tapped out at times with the stress level. Learning how to eat better, trying to just wake up in the morning is an issue at times. It’s challenging for sure."]
“I know that my body has been working overtime to try to heal, and I never realized how much stress I was under until I was dealing with a couple major surgeries on my leg. I had left my unit, and I was finally starting to heal because I had less stress. I did not realize my leg could not heal until I got rid of the stress.”
Athena says that her combination of multiple pain conditions and stress has made it even more important to have a team of healthcare professionals to help manage her symptoms and respond to any changes. These include pain specialists, neurologists, pain psychologists, nutritionists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and practitioners of alternative medicine like her acupuncturist. Having such diversity in your medical team is one piece of advice she has for patients who are experiencing migraines for the first time, as is being open to alternative medicine treatments that could prove helpful.
[“I would definitely say to go see a specialist first. See a neurologist to see if there is anything else going on, and that way you can have a baseline to know where you are. And if you’re not comfortable, know that you can always switch and go to somebody else."]
“You want to have providers who are listening. There was a time when I felt like a patient who just fell through the cracks and no one was listening. And I finally got a team that heard me, and they can be sympathetic to my issues.”
As mentioned earlier, the symptoms and treatments for migraine vary widely among individuals. This is a point Athena comes back to multiple times, and it’s clear that this is a very important lesson learned that every person living with migraine pain should take to heart.
[“I know that it’s hard, but it’s about being patient with yourself, and learning how your body reacts to certain things. We tend to want a quick fix on getting rid of pain, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way when it comes down to migraines."]
“Learn what works for you. Everybody does not use the same medications when it comes down to migraines. All medications don’t work for all migraines. Something that works for me might not work for you.”
In addition to the support she gets from her medical team, Athena also credits her family and therapy for helping get her through.
[“We’re very close. Family is everything to me. I’ve been through quite a bit health-wise, and it’s a bit emotional for me to speak about it, but it makes me feel good that hopefully I can help others or share with others so they know they’re not alone."]