Migraines are a literal and figurative pain



Opinion Columnist Emerson Slomka argues that pain related to frequent headaches should be recognized as a problem that students face.

EMERSON SLOMKA, Opinion Columnist

There are few ailments that one can claim are more painful and debilitating as a headache; that dull throbbing coupled with sensory sensitivity, moodiness and brain fog is enough to elicit sympathy from anyone—we’ve all been there. However, some of us, specifically those of us with headache disorders, such as migraines, experience it so often that it’s hard to imagine life without it.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 50 percent of adults suffer from some sort of headache disorder, with 30 percent suffering from migraines specifically. That means that at least half of the earth’s population suffers from some sort of chronic headache! While there is no definitive percentage of college students who suffer from migraines, a study from Turkey indicated that, out of the 3694 college students tested, 7 percent were identified as having migraine-type headaches. Despite the prevalence and severity of migraines, no singular cause has been identified, and no cure has been found.

While headache disorders are quite the pain, literally and figuratively, for everyone, they only add to the stress of being a college student. As someone who has suffered from migraines since I was seven, I can say with confidence that my disorder is the greatest barrier between myself and success. Using an anonymous poll, I collected data and input from twelve students who suffer from headache disorders in order to gain a better perspective on this issue and to hopefully identify methods others use in order to cope with headaches.

While most participants suffered from migraine headaches (8 out of 12), tension and cluster headaches were also common answers. When asked to rate their level of pain experienced on a scale from 0 to 10, scores from 5 to 9 were indicated. A typical migraine is scored as about a 7, so I was surprised to see scores reaching 8 and 9—an excruciating, debilitating pain. When asked if their headaches had resulted in any consequences, one student indicated that they had to withdraw from a class and another indicated that they had been fired from their job due to performance issues brought on by their disorder. Seven out of twelve students indicated that their headaches had significantly and negatively impacted their mental health.

So, how does a student even begin to handle these headaches? The first step is to seek professional help—a visit to the doctor can help you indicate any potential causes for your headaches and prescribed medication may reduce your headaches exponentially. The most common type of medication prescribed for migraines are beta-blockers, which reduce blood pressure and block the effects of epinephrine (adrenaline). Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen can be incredibly helpful, but overusing these can cause rebound headaches, which are brought on by medication overuse.

Of course, there are ways to remedy an aching head without the use of medication. One of the most recommended ways to combat a headache is dark room rest—lying down in a dark, quiet room. Of course, sleep can also be beneficial, but beware of oversleeping, as that can be as much of a trigger as not sleeping enough. Trying to stay nourished and hydrated can be a challenge when you’re struck with a headache, but hunger and dehydration are common triggers for headaches and can worsen them. Try to avoid alcohol and foods such as chocolate, cheese and citrus. Caffeine, on the other hand, is incredibly controversial when it comes to headaches. Caffeine helps to constrict blood vessels in the brain, easing pain and is found in medications such as Excedrin. In fact, many people find that a simple cup of coffee is enough to ease their aching head. However, caffeine is also dehydrating.

The most important part of managing headaches, however, is by tracking and analyzing them. Whenever you get a headache, record what time it started and ended, where you were when it began, any potential triggers and what you used to treat it. Chances are, you’ll discover some helpful patterns. Personally, I use an app called Migraine Buddy to help me keep track of my migraines. Many people notice that they feel irritable, weak and achy before a headache—if you sense one coming on, don’t wait to take action. If your headaches are getting in the way of your academics, don’t be afraid to email your professors to let them know—being upfront with them will help them understand the challenges you’re facing. When asked what they wished their professors understood about headaches and migraines, one student said, “I wish people understood that these headaches are an actual problem for students. It affects us in all aspects of our lives including education. It’s so hard to focus on anything when there’s someone inside your head pounding their fists against your skull. It’s a nightmare. They need to understand that students have more than just their classes to worry about as well.”