The problem of migraine is bigger than most people realise. In fact, the problem of chronic pain is bigger than most people realise, this being apparent as I purposely ask people I know and meet if they know what is the number one global health burden. It is chronic pain by the way, and migraine and headache sit in the top 10 along with back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis. Depression is at number 2.
Migraine is sometimes referred to as a functional pain syndrome. Not everyone likes this term, myself included, yet it’s use does mean that we can consider migraine as one of a number of conditions that hurt and cause great suffering. These conditions have a common biology known as central sensitisation, meaning that the individual’s systems that protect are more likely to do so, resulting in persisting pain in many cases.
The other well known functional pain syndromes include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), temporomandibular disorder (or jaw pain, clicky jaw etc), pelvic pain, dysmennorhoea, vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis, chronic back pain and fibromyalgia. These are often co-morbid with anxiety, depression and hypermobility. As individuals, it is common to find perfectionist or obsessive traits that may be useful in certain arenas such as work, helping to achieve great success, yet in other areas of life cause problems. More women than men report these problems, although I am seeing increasing numbers of men who often describe groin pain as a starter but then we explore the history and discover one or more of the aforementioned list. A further frequent finding is difficulty conceiving, this primarily due to the body systems that protect being persistently fired up (by normal living and exposures as well as stressors), and whilst that person is in such a mode, having children is not on the body’s agenda whereas survival is.
As with most of the functional pains, the story highlights certain vulnerabilities that can increase the likelihood of persisting pain including genetics, epigenetics, early life stressors and prior infections/injuries. These factors sculpt the systems that protect as they learn how to respond as well as becoming increasingly vigilant. The combination therewith creates an individual who is more likely to respond to actual or potential threat with vigorous and prolonged action and behaviours. With anxiety in the mix, this person is then likely to over-worry, which in effect further raises the threat value and heighten the responses even more. And so it goes on.
Rarely are the conditions explained adequately to patients, and certainly knowledge of the link between the seemingly different problems has never been volunteered to me by a patient. Therein lies a problem that the individual is suffering one or more pains and other symptoms (e.g./ tiredness, poor concentration, disrupted sleep, lethargy, flu-like symptoms, brain fog), yet they have no understanding as to why, or how it comes on, or what they can and must do to change the situation and move forward. Explaining the condition(s), the links, what the patient needs to do and what we can do to help and support them over a period of time that we can estimate is a key start point.
Further to the common biology, we can observe in the clinic the posturing, movements, guarding, poor body sense, altered sensorimotor function and the overall manifestation of how that person is feeling through body language and the words they use. We can gather far more information about the person, the whole person, by talking to them, listening to them and their concerns. What is their lived experience? The structured interview does not allow for this conversation. Yes we need some specific questions, but creating an open environment gives the person a chance to talk, feel heard and validated. This sets the scene for specific training, techniques and strategies that need to be used throughout the day and the development of understanding, all of which are the knowledge and skill base that the patient needs to overcome their pain.
No matter how long you have had pain, it can and does change. We are designed to change, and this is happening all the time. We are on a continuum, and we can have a say in where we go. It is a challenge and requires dedication, motivation, resilience and practice, but with the right thinking, action and support, great things can be achieved. I am honoured to see this happen in the clinic every week as people overcome their pain and resume being who they think they should be.