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The Art of a Migraine

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It starts as a nagging, pulsating sensation on one side of my head, usually between my temple and the eye on that side. Or, it could start in a shoulder and travel up my neck into my head. Sometimes, it could start across my entire forehead then migrate to one side of my head or the other. The pulsating intensifies and brings along stabbing pain in any or all of those locations. I visualize the pain of my migraines as someone stabbing me in the eye and temple with a screwdriver, then kicking me in the back of the head, followed by squeezing my head in a vice. The pain is accompanied by the sudden onset of an intense aversion to light, smells and sounds, and the overwhelming desire to vomit. At this point, I want to crawl into a soundproof, dark cave with a large ice pack and hibernate until the abortive medications kick in and it all ends.

Welcome, folks, to a migraine. This is NOT your run-of-the-mill headache. I would welcome just having one of those. This is a chronic, debilitating, frustrating illness one hopes to control. A staggering 38 million Americans suffer from migraines, yet science has not yet been able to figure out what exactly causes them or how to completely eliminate them. Progress has been slow, in part because a migraine was long considered a psychosomatic condition not worthy of serious research funding, and it’s a “subjective symptom that predominantly affects women,” said Dr. Elizabeth Loder, a Harvard University neurologist. “That’s a perfect combination of things that make people feel able to dismiss it.” There have been no new drugs brought to market for treating migraines since the 1990s, and while there are several promising ones in the queue, they won’t be available until at least 2018.

There are many ways people try to cope and live with migraines—drug therapies, food elimination diets, avoiding known triggers, biofeedback, meditation, acupuncture, or hypnosis to name a few. One interesting way for some people to deal with them is to depict them. By illustrating the pain and suffering experienced during an attack, and the effect migraine has on everyday life, non-sufferers can begin to understand what it is like for migraineurs to live with them.

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A UK-based national charity, Migraine Action has amassed a collection of 550 pieces of Migraine Art. This year, medical historian Katherine Foxhall (School of History, University of Leicester) and Migraine Action launched an online archive of the artwork for public viewing. A number of the works in the collection come from pieces created in the 1980s when a national “Migraine Art” competition was sponsored by British Migraine Association and WB Pharmaceuticals. Peter Wilson, founder-president of the Association, wanted to promote his charity and to educate the public and medical professionals about the symptoms and consequences of migraines. “If this competition alerts just a few hundred more people into a realistic understanding of what migraine means in terms of astronomical human suffering, then it will have been worthwhile,” he said when the project was launched.

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Migraine Action’s collection is the largest grouping of migraine art yet assembled. Over the years, it has attracted international attention and been exhibited around the globe. Pieces from the collection also often appear in medical journals and magazine articles to aid in the discussion of migraine research, discovery and symptoms. Foxhall and Migraine Action hope “the website will be a valuable resource for people living with, or supporting a person living with migraine, as well as neurologists, health and education workers, scholars and artists.”

If you currently suffer in silence with migraines, DON’T. Get help. There are tons of online resources in the US, and speaking from personal experience, go see a neurologist. He or she will be your new best friend. They understand and they want to help.

All artwork courtesy of the Migraine Action Art Collection, images 281, 353, 397, 418, 527, and 2004.

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