In the book “Migraine: A History” (Johns Hopkins University Press), medical historian Katherine Foxhall writes of a disabling disease that has been documented going back thousands of years, though the causes of this neurological disorder are still unclear. Symptoms vary, as have treatments through the ages (such as wrapping the patient’s head with ground-up earthworms).

Migraine affects three times as many women as men, leading it to be considered by some a “women’s disease,” though it affects one out of seven people on Earth. As Foxhall writes in her book, advances in the diagnosis and treatment of migraine came from the examination of desperate women whose symptoms were disabling – and, in the 1800s, financially devastating.

Elizabeth, the Girl Who Dropped Trays, 1895

 JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS

In April 1895, Elizabeth, a sixteen-year-old servant from the small village of Burbage in rural Wiltshire, southern England, traveled eighty miles to central London. She sought the help of physicians at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic in Queen Square. Her casenotes, which can be found in the thick bound volume of casenotes and treatment cards for prominent neurologist John Hughlings Jackson’s female patients during 1895, reveal something of her first meeting with the doctors and the story she recounted about her illness. Elizabeth described how she had been experiencing St. Vitus Dance (rapid involuntary movements) on her left side, headaches and pains in her eyes, sickness, and nervousness. The headaches occurred two or three times every day and lasted for five minutes at a time. They particularly affected her left side, at the back part of the top of her head. Noise, or sometimes reading in the morning, was most liable to bring on an attack. Elizabeth had experienced spells of giddiness and twice felt weakness in her hands in the mornings. She described episodes in which she could only see the left side of her visual field, or the left half of objects. This hemiopia (or half vision) could come on suddenly or gradually, from the periphery, though she had never seen zigzags or vomited.

 

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