I was 23 and a young working professional. I was missing two to three days of work a month. I was suffering from menstrual migraines. It was embarrassing to explain to male bosses or feel the need to come up with excuses why I was taking so many sick days.
Why, as women, do we feel like we can’t talk about this stuff?
Well, I’m here to share my migraine experience. The below steps is a long process or timeline over the last 10-plus years. I have many stories where my friends would go off hiking, and I’d be stuck in the car with searing pain while trying to find a place to vomit in public. Again, it wasn’t the life I wanted to live.
Yes, I missed hiking this trail because my head was pounding. I stayed at the trailhead and my friends hiked it. Photo by Andy Crampton.
You name it, I tried it. From pills to injections: Excedrin, Advil, Advil Migraine, prescription naproxen and sumatriptan. I was too young to be taking so much medication and letting this consume my life.
*I’m not a medical professional. I researched a bunch of options and decided to take care of myself instead of living with the problem and popping drugs. These are my observations, and I highly encourage for those who are suffering to try and try again until something works. It may take a few months or ten years.
What’s a migraine?
In my words, it’s a life-altering condition. Light, movement, sounds, and other senses are heightened and sensitive. For a full description, check out WebMD’s definition on migraines.
What’s a menstrual migraine?
A menstrual migraine is a migraine, defined above, that occurs due to menstrual cycles in women, usually a few days before your period starts. Read more about the treatment of hormonal migraines here.
My Medical History
I started having migraines when I was 12 while becoming a “woman” (or having periods). It runs in my family. My maternal grandmother and mother suffer with migraines to this day, along with my twin sister. I didn’t want to go through life suffering as long as my mom or grandmother, and it was time to do something about it. My maternal uncle also died from a cancerous brain tumor at the age of 45, which was a wake-up call to take care of myself and my brain.
Below is a summary of the migraine symptoms I was having:
- Stiff neck/muscles
- Heightened senses like movement, light, sound, etc.
- Throbbing head
- Bowel movements
- Passing out
- Losing feeling in legs
- Cold sweats
Every six months or so I’d get intense pain, lose feeling in my legs, pass out, and have cold sweats for an hour to an hour-and-a-half with sharp cramping. No one knew why, and it had been happening since I was in my early 20’s. Sometimes, it would happen at work, and I’d hide under my desk or in a conference room while looking like a sweaty zombie.
The Process on How I’ve Treated My Menstrual Migraines
I went on birth control.
As a junior in college, I went on birth control, which is a good option for keeping steady hormone doses and preventing pregnancy. When I stopped taking the pill for the week of my period, I’d be in bed the entire week. I hung blankets from my windows and couldn’t even make it to the bathroom without slowly crawling since my head pounded so much. My boyfriend insisted to take me to the hospital. I refused. I was a college student on my parents’ health insurance and didn’t want to add even more debt to my college loans. Fortunately, I did live with my sister and she helped take care of me. Needless to say, the “pill” wasn’t for me.
I went off birth control.
I only took birth control for ten months. I missed weeks of classes and midterms and my grades were suffering. I lived the next eight years without taking birth control. It got slightly better to the point that some medications would tame the migraine before giving me rebound headaches for days. Not the best solution, but it was better than being on birth control.
Not all birth control options are bad for menstrual migraines. Make sure your doctor knows you’re looking for an option to help with your migraines, not just to avoid pregnancy.
I went to a migraine specialist.
A couple years later and still taking over-the-counter medicine and missing work, I decided to go to a specialist. The Cleveland Clinic is known to have some of the best migraine specialists. I explained my situation. The doctor continued to push prescriptions to me even after I asked multiple times I wanted a natural way of treating my migraines. After the doctor mentioned botox injections every three months OR putting me on antidepressants, I knew I had to do the research on my own. Not all was lost as I did learn a lot from that appointment.
The good nuggets I got out of the consultation:
- Prescription-strength drugs, including sumatriptan injection for the days that I couldn’t stomach pills. I only took these on the bad days.
- Magnesium and calcium supplements were finally suggested as I pushed for a natural option.
- Tracking my migraines.
I tracked my migraines and menstrual cycles.
To this day, I have an app I use to track my migraines. It tracks the severity and what medications I take and how long the migraine lasts. I also started a menstrual calendar to see if the migraines aligned with my period. Recording migraines helped me know I was getting headaches about 7 to 12 times a month, most of them migraines.
I changed my routines.
- Eat regularly
- Stay hydrated
- Try a regular sleep schedule
Rinse and repeat. As a college student and then a full-time professional going to night classes for graduate school, you can say it was hard to have routines outside of work and school. My meals were all over the place, so I made a point to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the same time everyday. I also tried to get a good night’s rest, which for me is 6 to 7 hours of sleep. I started going to bed earlier and would try to keep this schedule even on the weekends. In addition, I knew I had to workout and keep myself healthy, so I tried to workout twice a week during my lunch breaks.
I tried vitamins/supplements.
I researched the supplements that the doctor suggested and found the dosage and how much to take a day. I’ve now weaned off of them and can’t remember the dosage amounts. I was taking calcium, magnesium, and B12 daily.
The vitamins still weren’t working. I found an article on the Women’s Health Network that had a ton of information on menstrual migraines, so I figured I’d try. I took the below supplements and hormone cream for five or so years, starting in 2011.
I tried acupuncture.
After moving to Seattle, it was time to try alternative methods to the supplements if possible. Enter acupuncturist. I’ve never been so relaxed in my life. I went once a month for 12 months thanks to my new health insurance that covered the costs. I replaced my morning cup of joe with an herbal formula and hot water (prepared at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health). As much as I enjoyed the practice, my acupuncturist recommended seeing a naturopathic doctor and gave me a few names.
I went to a naturopath.
I started going to a naturopathic doctor and started taking a migraine formula every day. Deciding to not be on two natural formulas, I “broke up” with my acupuncturist as I wanted to see if it could work. If it didn’t, I would go back and try both.
My naturopathic doctor was just what I needed and completely understood my struggles. At my first appointment, I gave her all my tracked data of my migraine history over the last years. Talk about an A++ patient.
I used to wake up at 5 am, check to see if I had a migraine, take something if I did, and be able to sleep a little more before having to go to work. She encouraged me to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Also, I focused a regular eating schedule that minimized process foods which was a big help.
She did recommend Migralief and Butterbur supplements, which I was already taking. However, she upped my dosage of taking one dosage in the morning and at night instead of just once a day. She hadn’t heard of the hormone cream and did some research for our next visit.
I tried a natural formula from my naturopathic doctor.
I’m still not sure what is in the formula, but it is a liquid mixture and was awful tasting. I got used to it and have been taking it every morning for roughly four years. It was tailored to my menstrual requests to reduce cramping and help minimize the intensity of my migraines.
I did an elimination diet.
Adding to the tracking, she asked me to keep a food diary. I did an elimination diet and found that I didn’t really have any food triggers I didn’t already know of (wine and chocolate). My elimination diet took out cheese, soy, aged meats, and citric acids. After going cold turkey on what I eliminated, I slowly reintroduced the food—of course I reintroduced cheese first! The diet didn’t result into food triggers, which I was happy about.
I stopped taking the supplements.
The formula seemed to be working. I decided to slowly, one-by-one, stop taking the supplements. I phased out the hormone cream, then the Butterbur, and then the Migralief by reducing to only one-a-day doses for a month and then completely going off it for the next month, which took six months to phase off all of them. I didn’t notice any side effects, even after taking them for years.
I continued to stay on the migraine formula daily.
I got an IUD.
After my first experience with birth control ten years ago and finally getting my migraines minimized, I didn’t want to go back on birth control. Ironically, my husband did a ton of research to convince me it may be a good solution. Since he has been the one taking care of me all these years, I at least owed it to him to research some by myself and talk to my doctor about my options.
- IUD – Merina or ParaGard
I found this website to be super helpful to my research: Bedsider.
I decided to get the Merina. Why?
I already suffer from intense cramping the first few days and heavy flow. The copper IUDs have been known to intensify cramping and increasing period flow. Merina has a low hormone dosage and helps manage cramping, which would be nice. I opted out of the arm implant because headaches and dizziness were side effects, and I didn’t want to continue to have those symptoms.
I’m about 5 months into my Merina and am enjoying it. The first couple of months, I had regular, heavy periods, along with irregular spotting throughout the month and intense cramping. It’s getting better. I feel good.
I found out I have a sensitive vagus nerve.
Is the sensitive vagus nerve the reasoning behind my cold sweats and passing out while on my period? I might have found the answer. While getting my IUD inserted, it was painful but manageable. The procedure was quick. The OBGYN left me to get dressed, which I did. I asked to use the bathroom to clean up and relieve myself. That is usually how it starts.
Before I knew it, I was passed out, off the toilet, and sweating as the nurses pounded on the door asking if I was ok. As I came back to conscientiousness, I tidied myself up and opened the door. They sat me down right away and got a gurney. I was still passing out. There was a lot of blood. I had cut open my forehead on a metal stand in the bathroom. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about.
I was moved to the gurney and wheeled to the emergency room. They called my emergency contact, my husband, and continued to take my vitals and clean me up. I didn’t know I had cut my forehead until I realized a nurse continued to hold gauze on my head. I desperately wanted to go to the bathroom with intense cramping. My blood pressure dropped and my heart rate was down to 38. I kept telling them it will pass in an hour. It happens.
My husband rushed away from work and was by my side. He looked concerned as I was drowsy from the morphine they were pumping into me for the pain. I’d have a permanent reminder of my condition leaving the hospital with an IUD and seven stitches across my eyebrow.
I’m trying essential oils.
I have begun expanding my natural options, and I have added Young Living essential oils to my routine. I mainly use lavender topically on my tension areas (usually around my neck). It is also helpful to mist or rub the lavender scent on my pillow before bed. During my menstrual cycle, I have found rubbing lavender on my back and diffusing it has been beneficial.
My sister has been using essential oils for over two years now. Here are some of her recommendations for me to try: Aroma Siez, PanAway, Stress Away, MGrain, Frankincense, Peppermint. Again, experimentation is key and knowing what your onsets are will help you find what will work best for you and your body. Every body is different.
Where I am now.
The intensity of my migraines has dropped over the years. I average 2 to 3 migraines a month, which is a vast improvement.
I’ll continue to moderate the progress of having an IUD. I hope it solves my menstrual migraines and painful periods. Fortunately, I hear it doesn’t hurt as bad when they remove the IUD. I was nervous to go to my OBGYN follow-up, but they said they learned a lot that day too. Now, they don’t let patients go to the bathroom by themselves. You’re welcome!
If you’ve read through the entire post, congratulations! I know it’s not my normal type of writing, and I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.