One day not long before I turned 12, I got my first migraine. I was triumphantly competing for my primary school in a regional cross-country race when zig-zags of neon light began to buzz in my peripheral vision.
Then suddenly they were gone — replaced by swathes of nothing, like Photoshop had just chopped out chunks of the path ahead. The race ended with me projectile vomiting into a garbage bin by the side of the road.
That afternoon, I cowered in a bedroom back at home, enduring a headache that no standard painkiller could touch.
When my mother took me to the doctor soon after, I described in detail the crazy vision, the pounding headache, the dramatic vomit and the next two days spent tiptoeing around dark rooms as the slightest vibration or sliver of light threatened to set things off again.
“Welcome to the world of migraines,” said the GP, who had seen it all before.
A staggering cost
Migraine sufferers, or “migraineurs” as they’re termed, get pretty antsy when anyone with a bad headache calls on this diagnosis. Those of us who have experienced one know (as the cliché goes) this is far, far more than a headache.
But the story of migraine isn’t just a tale about the mistaken identity of pain.
For many it is a story of chronic disability and economic loss, it affects women three times more often than men and the latest research has drawn unsettling links to the risk of everything from depression and endometriosis to an increased chance of stroke.
Yet research funds are extremely difficult to come by and as a result, precisely how genetics, hormones and lifestyle interact to cause migraine, let alone universally effective treatments, is still being worked out.
Migraine is a mysterious condition and yet surprisingly common. About 12 per cent of Australians have experienced one and migraine makes a lot of top 10 lists: it is the world’s most frequently diagnosed neurological problem; a leading cause of disability in Australia and the third most-common medical problem globally behind a hole in the tooth and a standard headache.
In 2018 alone the economic cost to Australia was estimated at more than $35 billion.