Thanks to the tools available today, migraineurs are getting smarter.
On the upside it really has never been a better time for migraineurs. Things would have been a lot worse for us 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. The medicine was less developed, less was known about the condition and tools we have today were non-existent. Having said that, many of us still struggle with this condition daily. But with better tools like these in the list, we can enjoy longer migraine-free periods and take more control over our condition.
Technology, smart devices and apps allow us to learn more about our habits, behaviour and condition than ever before. Exercise routines, sleep habits, stress levels, diets and more can be tracked, recorded and disseminated into meaningful insights to inform more effective migraine management.
A case study
For as long as I can remember I experienced daily tension headaches in the afternoon. They were perhaps a 3/10 on the pain scale. It was so regular I barely noticed them and just worked through it.
My migraines, which caused vomiting, were 9/10 on the pain scale if untreated. These could not be ignored.
So the tension headaches weren’t so bad comparatively. They were something I thought was simply ‘wired’ into my DNA. Inevitable and unavoidable.
But soon after tracking my diet I realized that the food I was eating was affecting my migraine condition. I started experimenting and quickly realized there were many trigger foods – beyond the common chocolate, cheese and wine – that were playing a role.
With the help of a doctor, food-allergy test and an elimination diet the routine afternoon headaches disappeared. My migraine frequency also dropped dramatically. It wasn’t easy – but it was very interesting and my first real breakthrough in 10 years.
The discovery only occurred once I made the effort to track migraine factors.
As you can imagine I’ve since started tracking a bunch of other suspected triggers and to see if I could make more breakthroughs. And I did.
I learnt that Mondays were by far the highest risk days for an attack. This was due to the sleep disruption from the weekend and having to wake up earlier again. It was also from stress – Monday’s were often the busiest days at work and getting back under the fluorescent lights and the bright computer screen was not helpful.
Getting access to such information is empowering and insightful. For migraineurs these tools can go beyond just a fitness fad, the quantified self trend or vanity metrics – these can provide valuable insights into our habits and the factors improving or worsening our condition.
As a result I made a conscious effort to keep better sleeping habits through the weekend. I learnt some stress management techniques and picked up some precision tinted lenses that help deal with the fluroscent lights and bright screens.
These are the tools that have helped me bring my attacks under control.
According to Dr Fred Luskin of Standford University, we have an average of 60,000 thoughts per day. 90% are the same as yesterday. Our mind can be like a TV on fast forward, racing from ad to ad with us being forced to hear everything. Taking time out to stop and concentrate on your breathing doesn’t make you a tree hugging hippie. It’s actually a practical way to calm the mind. It’s like turning the TV off for a few minutes to cool it down and prevent overheating. Migraineurs are often said to have hyper sensitive or over-reactive brains. So this tool makes a good fit.
MyCalmBeat is a free and simple app that helps you control and regulate your breathing. There are gentle tones to cue the rate at which you breath in and out. Doing this for 5-10 mins a day has almost single handedly help me control my racing mind and bring a greater state of awareness and calm into my daily routine.
I typically set the breathing rate for 6 breaths per minute. Give it a try for a few days and see whether it helps you like so many others. Even if you only do 10 deep breaths each night before bed or first thing in the morning, you will notice a difference.
2) Sleep Cycle (iOS) or SleepBot (Android)
Sleep disruption is one of the common migraine triggers. It also affects me personally. If I don’t get a quality 8.5-9 hours sleep you will know about it the next day. It is embarrassing to admit, but I’m moody, irritable and experience a kind of brainfog. My friends describe a similar feeling when they get 4 hours sleep. I know the average person needs 8 hours. I guess I’m not normal. *Sigh*
But, if I DO get 9 hours of quality sleep, whilst keeping a routine. I can fire at 120% all day. I have lots of energy, I can do strenuous exercise and feel great – I feel just about normal 🙂
The go-to apps for sleep are Sleep Cycle on iOS pictured above or SleepBot for Android. These have the highest ratings according to LifeHacker’s review.
Both are free and helpful.
You may be surprised at how well or poorly you’re sleeping. The good thing is that when you start measuring your sleep, you have more of an incentive to get to bed earlier, be more consistent and get better scores. Better scores actually make you feel better not only because it’s like getting an ‘A’ on your report card – but it is also actually very healthy for you. A welcome bonus.
This app is designed to track your calories consumed and calories burned in an effort to help you lose weight. However, it is also useful to track exactly what you are eating. The app goes further to provide you with information about any gaps in your diet. Are you eating enough protein? Not getting enough calcium?
But what makes this really useful for migraineurs is looking over your diet in the previous 24hrs from an attack. Having this food diary record is a useful tool, particularly if you’re not willing to go through an elimination diet to figure out your food triggers. The downside is that it does require you to enter all the food you eat after you have it, which requires effort. If you are a little overweight and get migraines, this could be the tool for you.
The upside is that it almost completely automates the exercise and sleep tracking for you. You’ll need to spend around $130, depending on where you live, but it saves time and effort in manually logging exercise or setting up the sleep app and phone each night.
The Fitbit updates the data and provides a performance dashboard showing your sleep and fitness statistics and achievements.
Alternatively, if you are keen to explore the free options first you can track exercise using MyFitnessPal app (listed above).
5) MigrainePal’s smart diary
Recording aspects of your lifestyle and behaviors can be interesting and helpful. However, none of the above apps are designed or built for migraineurs.
All this information becomes useful when it is used to help evaluate, manage and improve your migraine condition. That’s where MigrainePal comes in.
MigrainePal is a ‘smart’ diary for migraineurs which measures behavioural and lifestyle factors to help you uncover triggers, understand your condition and prevent more attacks.
MigrainePal uses this information to provide you with a personal dashboard and actionable feedback.
MigrainePal is still in beta, an early version is being tested with a smaller group of users who are providing feedback. If you want to be one of the first to use it you can find out more here.
Whilst there is still no cure for migraines, the tools listed above can be powerful allies in the war against headaches and migraines. You can uncover and manage key triggers, learn more about your habits and condition.
The biggest rewards come when you actually DO something with the insights you learn. Make changes, minimise the bad habits, develop healthier routines and take more control over your own condition.
What tools have you used to help manage your condition?