In 2003, Jane Bentley, a 53-year old kindergarten teacher from Tacoma, knew something was seriously wrong with her. Her symptoms started with strange visual effects. “It was like my peripheral vision would disappear and I would see these spidery cobwebs that I was sure were right in front of me,” she says. “I would literally put my hands out to get them out of my way and they weren’t there.” After about a month, she began experiencing searing headaches. “I thought for sure that I was dying,” she says.“It was the worst headache I could ever imagine.”
Headaches became a daily struggle, leaving her wading through life feeling subhuman or lying in bed, unable to move. For the pain, she tried ibuprofen and even some leftover Vicodin from a previous root canal, but neither helped much. By the end of the school year, she had used up all of her sick leave with no relief in sight. Finally, her mother did some research and helped her find a specialist who diagnosed her with migraine, a syndrome that includes a collection of symptoms that can manifest in different ways.
Bentley’s experience is similar to what we imagine when we hear the word “migraine,” but in addition to that searing headache, the condition also comes with a host of other possible symptoms, including upset stomach, unusual visual and other bodily sensations, and a heightened sensitivity to light and sound.
The syndrome is often misdiagnosed and undertreated, leaving people with migraine, whose brains are hypersensitive to certain internal and external triggers, missing important work and social events in their lives. “What is really sad about this is there are so many people that are losing time from life, very important days and important family functions,” says Patrick Hogan, clinical director of Puget Sound Neurology in Tacoma. “Many of them are just using pain medicines without realizing that there are many other things that you could do.”
At least 36 million Americans suffer from migraine, according to the Migraine Research Foundation; women are three times more likely to have it than men, and it is almost always passed down through families. Most patients experience the peak prevalence of the disorder between the ages of 25 and 55, but it can begin much younger, even in children. Sylvia Lucas, director of the Headache Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC), says Seattle is a particularly bad place to live for people with migraine headaches who are sensitive to barometric pressure drops. “I can write you prescription to move to Scottsdale, where there are fewer pressure changes” she says.