How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part One)

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that an activity like running, which for me often triggered migraines, actually led me to the cure for them. But indeed, it is true.

I first experienced migraines as a young child, from the age of 7 or 8. Too often during my childhood, I would spend hours or the whole day confined to a dark and quiet room, usually vomiting and in agony until the pain passed. On several occasions, they landed me in the emergency room and then when I was 17, a migraine halted my life for two months.

At the age of 22, they got even worse and would start with stroke-like symptoms (loss of vision, numbness in the hands and face, seeing lights, confusion, inability to speak or understand) and would proceed to a violent migraine that would last for hours or days. On several occasions, a friend or family member took me to the emergency room when I was in such a state and the medical team tested me for stroke, spinal meningitis or a brain aneurysm by performing a spinal tap, cat scan and MRI before treating the pain. I learned to beg my friends to NOT take me to the hospital when such symptoms hit and would instead take a powerful drug called Imitrex, which sometimes worked and sometimes did not. During certain seasons, I would have fewer migraines and during others, they would more frequently interrupt my life.

At some point, I developed a passion for running long distances. It was often a direct trigger for migraines, but I wanted to keep going so badly that I put up with the consequences. Yet I could never plan anything important on the same day or the day after a long run because I knew a migraine could follow. Even if I didn’t develop a migraine, my head often felt cloudy and dizzy after running long distances, putting me in what felt like a “pre-migraine” state.

Several friends and family members encouraged me to stop running, arguing that perhaps my head just couldn’t handle it. While I knew that there was an obvious connection, I couldn’t stop. Pushing harder felt to me like a way to fight my physical limitations, to move forward in spite of them. So I kept running long distance races and kept training for marathons to the extent that my body would allow.

There were some scary moments, though, like once when I was out on a long run, miles from home, and started losing my peripheral vision. I knew I only had minutes to get home before I would be incapable of finding my way. I flagged down a taxi and begged him to take me home even though I had no money on me. Not knowing when these episodes might start was destabilizing. After the Florence marathon, I was hit with a migraine that wiped me out for days. And after a great experience of running the Frankfurt marathon last October, I was a complete mess. I spent the rest of the day in bed and was vomiting all night. During those awful hours, I didn’t ever want to confront a marathon again, but I also didn’t want to give in to such defeat. It took weeks to recover from that episode. The Frankfurt marathon had truly broken me.

And then, everything changed.

(Continue to Part Two)

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3 thoughts on “How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part One)

  1. Lauryn says:

    Hello, congrats on all of your running success and most of all for curing your migraines! My daughter (13) has begun to get exercise-induced migraines (or sometimes just dizziness with nausea) so I am so excited to find your blog. I wanted to stop all her sports but she loves long-distance running and competing. Electrolyte drinks work for her most of the time. Can you tell me how you hydrate and if you are 100% low carb? Thank you. Lauryn

    • Thanks, Lauryn! One of the most important things I started doing was taking an electrolyte capsule called S!CAPS with water before and after running (and during if running for more than two hours). Avoiding sugar has also been very important for me, and cutting down on high-carb foods. Hope this information is useful. I also recommend reading Dr. Angela Stanton’s book (linked above). All the best for your daughter!

  2. Lauryn says:

    Thank you.

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