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How we learned to cope with the misery of migraines

By Karen Ireland

Published 05/01/2016

Pain barrier: Karen Law
Pain barrier: Karen Law
Courtney Orr
Karen Law
Karen with husband Steven
Trigger alert: Courtney Orr at her salon in Dromore

Crippling pain and double vision... just a few of the excruciating symptoms of a blinding headache. We talk to two local woman about the ways they deal with an attack.

New research has revealed some branded painkillers which are marketed as targeting a specific type of pain, such as migraine, are no different to generic pain relief pills.

The findings by Which? showed tablets commonly found in chemist shops or supermarket shelves which claim to target ailments such as migraine or tension headaches were "identical" to other cheaper general painkillers.

Which? highlighted the issue as many of the branded pills, which claim greater efficacy, can be twice the price of the generic equivalent leaving migraine sufferers - the majority of whom are women - out of pocket.

Figures from the Department of Health in Britain show that eight million people in the UK suffer from migraines making it the most prevalent long term neurological condition. Migraine is the most common form of disabling headache that sends patients to see their doctors.

We talk to two local women about how this debilitating condition affects their lives and how they cope with it.

‘The worst thing is it takes over your life and you can’t do anything’

Karen Law (51) is a chartered accountant and works as finance manager in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. She lives in Dromore, Co Down, with her husband Steven and daughter Laura Atkinson (19). She says:

I remember taking my first migraine when I was 13-years-old on a family caravan holiday to Groomsport. The pain was so great I was rolling around the small bedroom in agony and my mum tied tights around my head to ease it.

The tears were tripping me and I was screaming in pain. My mum suffers from migraines too, so she knew what it was, and after getting some medication, the pain passed eventually.

Since then, I have suffered regular bouts of migraines. The headaches were so unbearable I would have no choice but to go to bed until they receded. When I was 19, though, I started taking aura migraines. The first one occurred when I was a student at Queen's University, Belfast. I was out shopping in Topshop when I noticed something wrong with my eyes. Everyone looked as though they were cut in half and only had one eye.

I had to get home immediately and take some medication and go to bed. I suffered from that type of migraine and another where I would see zigzag lines and get very sick with the headache.

Sometimes they would last an afternoon and on other occasions they would go on for a couple of days. I always felt shattered afterwards.

The worst thing about a bad migraine is it takes over your life and you can't do anything. You can't drive or function properly, you just have to lie down. For years I would have a bad headaches once a month and I always got one on the first day of a holiday which I put down to a change of scene and routine. Being away from home, eating different foods and sleeping at different times also seemed to be triggers, too.

However, everything changed for me this time last year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My world was turned upside down and I spent last Christmas in hospital having surgery to remove my breast and the cancer.

I had one breast removed and reconstruction done at the same time. One of the worst things about going through the surgery was having a migraine in the morning while waiting to go to theatre. I was so sick and in so much pain I was praying the specialists would come and take me to theatre and knock me out so the pain would go away.

The migraine pain was worse than the surgery to remove my breast. I was just hoping I wouldn't wake up with a headache. I am probably one of the few people to be glad to see an anaesthetist. After my operation I started chemotherapy, which was tough, and I had it until May followed by five weeks of radiotherapy.

I was prescribed the drug Tamoxifen for five years and officially have no oestrogen in my body and, since that has happened, my headaches have been a lot less frequent. So I believe the migraines were connected to my hormones - thinking back they would always have been worse at certain times of the month.

The doctor has given me medication to take when I feel one coming on but I don't like taking it as it always makes me feel out of control and drowsy. Sometimes I would rather be in pain than feel out of control so I just have to suffer the migraine until it passes.

I have had them for so long now and so many different types of migraine that I have just got used to it now. Sometimes I will feel one coming on and I know I have an important meeting coming up. I will be sitting through it digging my hands into my temples to take away the pain - you just get on with things. If it is very severe I will go to bed and let the pain pass."

'You've got to get on with life, not just be waiting for the next attack'

Courtney Orr (25) lives in Dromore, Co Down where she owns a beauty salon. She is engaged to Darren and is getting married in February.  She says:

I had my first migraine about a year and a half ago and it was a horrifying experience. Darren and I were coming home from the cinema in the car when I felt a tingling sensation over the back of my neck and head.

My arms started to feel really heavy and the tingling had moved to the side of my face. I started to panic, as I thought I was having a stroke. When I got home I started being sick and then I had to go to bed with a really bad headache.

I was exhausted afterwards, but I put it down to a bad stomach bug until the same thing happened again - this time I went to my doctor. When I explained all the symptoms, he said I was having an aura migraine.

He changed my birth control medication and said certain ones make you more prone to migraines and that I was lucky I didn't have a blood clot.

I had just opened my new business at the time and had a lot going on with planning a wedding, so the doctor said stress had probably brought it on, too.

Since then I have suffered a migraine once a month. Sometimes they are worse than others and last longer.

I feel very panicky at the start when I start to tingle and can't see properly. I also have difficulty breathing.

If I am out somewhere I have to find a quiet spot to sit down and get my breathing right. I have to calm myself down and tell myself that it will be all right and will pass.

When a migraine strikes, my speech slurs and I feel very ill, although I now have medication to take the minute I feel the symptoms. Sometimes the treatment works, whereas other times, I get the headache anyway.

I always know when I might suffer a migraine, as a few days before I feel different - light-headed and lacking in co-ordination.

The symptoms associated with migraines and the actual pain of the headache are frightening and I do find myself panicking.

Both my parents suffer from migraines, so they weren't surprised when I had them, but neither of my two sisters and brother have them.

I try to manage migraine attacks with lifestyle choices, such as eating at the right times, going for walks and taking proper breaks at work - but when you are running your own business it is difficult.

Although I have cut out dairy and eat less chocolate, these changes haven't made a great deal of difference to the number or severity of the attacks.

Stress is definitely a trigger and I do worry about this, especially as my wedding in February is approaching. There is a lot to do when planning a wedding, but I can't let the fear of having a migraine ruin my life.

As long as you know what it is you can take the medication for it and know it will pass. There have been times, though, when I haven't been able to function and carry on. I have had to shut the salon early and go home to bed.

And there have been other times the pain has been so bad I can't get out of bed, but you just have to work around them and get on with your life, otherwise you would be constantly waiting for the next attack."

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