Everyone has probably had a headache at some point in his or her life. I’ve suffered from headaches since I was a young child, and I remember quite clearly the pain that they had caused me. They would force me to stop playing, or whatever it was that I was doing, so that I could lay down and try to sleep the pain away. I would cry and just beg for them to go away. I thought my experiences with headaches back then were bad enough… that is until I experienced my first migraine, in my early twenties.
So, what’s the difference between a headache and a migraine? Well, a headache is literally pain in the head. It’s when you have pain, but it’s not really affecting any other part of your body. A migraine, on the other hand is different. Here is how WebMD defines a migraine:
There is a migraine “pain center” or generator in the brain. A migraine begins when hyperactive nerve cells send out impulses to the blood vessels, causing them to clamp down or constrict, followed by dilation (expanding) and the release of prostaglandins, serotonin, and other inflammatory substances that cause the pulsation to be painful.*
Basically, a headache hurts, but a migraine hurts like he… um… heck.
I can’t describe what anyone else’s experience with a migraine is like, but I can describe my own.
The Twinge Begins
It begins with a twinge. It’s a familiar pain that suddenly appears over my left eye. Unlike headaches, migraines tend to often occur on one side of the head only, and often it is the same side for each migraine. Although, there are indeed people who suffer from full-headed migraines too. I am thankful that is not the case for me, as I feel that is a much more severe case of the illness. For me, though, I will first feel a headache coming, and I will start taking the over-the-counter pain medicines that we have in the house. If the headache goes away relatively quickly, then I know it was merely a headache that was starting, but I was able to ward it off. However, when the pain doesn’t disappear, and only begins to get worse, I know that I will be suffering in agony for at least the next one to two days. When I get hit with a migraine, I am down for at least a day. The pain radiates from my left head, down to my left ear and left side of my jaw. I will be spending my time lying in the dark, walking around the house with sunglasses, and whispering ‘cause it hurts too much to hear my voice echo in my head. I’ll feel like crying constantly, but won’t because that will only make my head hurt even more. I’ll usually have a wet towel and bag of ice with me constantly too, but it doesn’t really do any good. If I place my hand over my left side of the head, or anyone else does, my pulse can be felt beating hard and clearly. It’s the only visual ‘wound’ (if you will) of the pain deep inside of my head. The ice can feel numbing for short periods, but the pain is still there, deep inside. And no matter how much ice I have, it doesn’t do anything to calm the dizziness, lightheadedness, and nausea.
The nausea. The nausea is awful, and the thought that I will have to vomit or dry heave, only adding to the pressure in my head, makes me worry it will explode. However, considering how much during these times I wish I could just rip into my head and pull out the source of my pain with all of my might… a head explosion wouldn’t be so bad. Sleep is usually the only thing that I can do during migraines, although I tend to have horrible dreams during these times, often with pain in them. The pain will then wake me up and it’s back to trying to bear with it in an awakened state. I can’t stand the light and too much sound is awfully irritating, both emotionally and physically. I will keep the TV on with a low volume as I need a little sound to stop my thoughts from taking over me, but that’s about it. Food? Forget about it. If I’m lucky, I manage to get some plain scrambled egg and toast in by the end of the day, but other than that, I will sip on juice or something carbonated to help the nausea. I will take way more pain meds than is recommended by the dosage on the bottle (I do not recommend doing that… don’t do it), but when I’m in that pain, I don’t care. All I want is for the pain to stop, yet no matter how many pills I take, it doesn’t. I know, as I lay there waiting for time to just speed up, that I will be sick for the rest of that day. And, if I wake up the next morning and it’s still there, then I know it will be another day of misery. It’s just how my migraines work.
One of my methods of trying to quell the pain is pushing my head up against the wall. I will stand up and lean really hard on the left side of my head and rock back and forth. It actually feels kind of good, but the pain still remains. I usually wind up with a red mark or bruise on that part of my head by the end of the migraine, but it’s something that I couldn’t care less about when I’m in that pain. Besides, as a hermit, what does it matter?
So, that is what it’s like to have a migraine… for me at least. The shortest migraine I’ve had was a day long, while the longest was four days long. That one sent me to the doctor. It’s something that I have not learned to live with, and I never will. I can learn the symptoms of one coming on. I can learn what I need to do to try and make it last as short as possible. However, I will never learn to live with the pain. It’s one of those things that you just have to deal with when it comes. You can learn to handle it as best you can, but when that pain hits, there is no way to learn to live with it. It’s a “going through the motions” experience that can only be relieved when your body decides it’s ready to play nice.
What About Bipolar?
So, considering that the title of this post is “Bipolar and Migraines – A Connection?” – I guess I better get down to the bipolar part. You may be wondering what migraines have to do with bipolar. Well, up until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think they had anything to do with one another. However, that’s when I got hit with another migraine. Two days of that pain was enough for me, and thankfully my body agreed.
After that dreaded experience – which I guess I knew was only a matter of time before it occurred again for me – I started thinking about migraines and bipolar. I’ve been having a difficult time these last months, and thankfully, I am now on my increased dosage of my medication, which I think is finally starting to kick in a bit. It’s been a week since I started it, and my psychiatrist said it takes a week for it to start becoming noticeable (since it’s not a new medication). I’m hoping it really is finally kicking in and not just my mind wishing it to be. The next few weeks will tell I guess. Well, after my migraine, I began thinking about how the timing of it was quite ‘perfect’ really. I mean, what better time for a migraine to hit than when you’re already down to begin with. I wondered if there could actually be a connection. I know stress is one of many triggers for a migraine, so that was an obvious one that I thought about. But, I also started wondering if there was more of a connection.
As I stated, my migraines started around my early twenties. This was about 5 years or so after my first bipolar symptoms (or least those that I can pinpoint, looking back) began. That made me even more curious about what the two have in common, if anything. I wanted to know if it was just a matter of timing for me, or if there was something more at work. Therefore, I started to do some research and realized that there is in fact studies that have been run and completed on the connection between migraines and bipolar. And, guess what they found… there is indeed a connection!
Can you believe that? Migraines and bipolar actually have a connection. Maybe it’s just me, but when I first discovered that a couple of weeks ago, I was quite floored. I had never before put the two together. I had always thought that they were two very different illnesses. But, apparently, they’re more connected than I first thought. Now, to be clear, people can be free from mental illness and still experience migraines. But, what the studies found was that a high percentage of people who suffer from bipolar, also suffer from chronic migraines. It’s a comorbidity that I had never thought about for bipolar, mainly because it’s not an extremely wide known fact. Even my therapist was surprised to learn about my findings when I first told her a couple of weeks ago. And, my psychiatrist knows about my migraines, but has never offered the connection before. I found it interesting to read comments on some of the sites I visited on the subject, and realize that many others were also enlightened by the connection.
In an article that I read on the Psychiatric Times website, the percentage of bipolar-migraine sufferers was broken down. The article is from 2002, but it still doesn’t change the facts and results of the study. In one of the conducted studies, the findings were quite illuminating. It was found that 27% of people who have bipolar I, also suffered from migraines. That number is interesting enough, but get this… a whopping 82% of people with bipolar II suffered from migraines as well. That number is probably the part that floored me even beyond how much I was when I first learned of the connection in the first place. I have bipolar II, which as I’ve stated before in my blog is the same as bipolar I, with the exception that mania reaches the hypomanic level, and depression tends to be the more prominent of the episodes. So, as a bipolar II and migraine sufferer, I definitely fit into that 82%. I always wanted to fit in when I was a kid, but that’s not really where I had my goals aimed.
In addition to the connection between bipolar and migraines, anxiety disorders were also found to be higher among those who suffered from migraines. In another study completed in Zurich, Switzerland, it was found that it was twice as likely for the bipolar-migraine individuals studied to have anxiety disorders, as opposed to those who did not suffer from migraines. And, it was six times as likely for those with panic attacks to suffer from migraines as well. The Zurich study also found the following to be true in regard to bipolar disorders.
In the Zurich study, people with migraine had a threefold-increased one-year prevalence of bipolar spectrum disorders (9% versus 3%), a non-significant increase in manic episodes and a twofold-increased prevalence of major depression (15% versus 7%).**
So, What Now?
What does this mean? Well, we’re screwed. Ok, well that’s just one way to look at it. But, if we must look at it from a much more intellectual and mature point of view, I guess we could deduce that it means that there is some neurological, physiological, or genetic connection between the two – or rather between the three, including anxiety disorders. We already know that bipolar has a genetic attribute. Migraines have also already been considered to have a genetic source behind them.*** Therefore, it makes sense for the two to be connected. Times like these, I wish I were a medical doctor or medical researcher, so that I could find an answer that I could thoroughly understand, and relay to all of you. So, if anyone out there has more information to add to this topic, please sound off in the comments below. I’d love to learn even more or hear about any personal experiences in this matter.
I guess, in the end, the main result for my research query was found… there is indeed a connection between bipolar and migraines, and even more so if you suffer from bipolar II. Unfortunately, now I’m left with more questions about what exactly is causing the connection. I will definitely be keeping an eye open for more information on the subject. If or when I hear of any, I’ll be sure to add it here to my blog.
Well, with that load of information, I shall end this post with something a bit more hopeful. Here’s a song that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s a great song and one of my many favorites. It makes me feel a little better whenever I hear it. I hope it does the same for you.
* Migraines & Headaches Health Center – WebMD.
** Are Migraines and Bipolar Disorder Related?, by Ole Bernt Fasmer, M.D., and Ketil Joachim Oedegaard, M.D. August 1, 2002. UBM Medica Psychiatric Times.
*** The Pain in My Brain, by Carlton Davis. May 14, 2012. The Bipolar Coaster: Adventures in a Manic World. Psychology Today.
Headaches From Hell, by Barbara Kantrowitz. September 15, 2008. The Daily Beast.