Migraine mysteries

News & Analysis

21st February 2015

Since I relinquished my Sunday-night Chinese takeaway — with emphasis on the seaweed starter and crispy duck pancakes — I can honestly say that my battle with migraine has been 90 per cent won. It took me a mere 40 years to discover that monosodium glutamate is my trigger (along with chocolate and cow’s cheese). Now, if I am stressed, gluttonous or drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, I might succumb to the Large Hadron Collider of headaches, but I can generally catch it early with a couple of Solpadeine or, at worst, knock it on the head via the other end. Without being too graphic, a strong anti-inflammatory in suppository form will bypass the already-upset stomach and stem the pain; I hope I haven’t hereby demolished my feminine enigma in one swell enema.

Over the years I’ve come to realise that no one can explain migraine, especially the migraine experts. I’ve sat in the salons of men whose names are followed by more letters than a Royal Mail delivery van. They’ve interrogated me on my sleep patterns, my make of pillow and ability to orgasm, and they’ve all reached the same conclusion. ‘Mrs Rosenthal,’ they chorus, ‘you have migraine. That’ll be £275 please, and don’t bang the door on your way out because I’ve got a blinder.’

In my 48 years of doing what the late actor Patrick Troughton called ‘shouting in the evenings’, I’ve only ever missed two performances. Both were due to migraine. Not a bad record, although needless to say I seem to have since met the entire audience of both shows. ‘Ooh, Maureen, we came all the way from Shanklin on four buses, a Sinclair C5 and a mule to see you and when we got to the theatre you’d put your understudy on! We were gutted! Did you feel like a night off? Your understudy was great — has she got anything in the pipeline?’

Frequently, it was uber-reflexologist Tony Porter who kept me going through the show, driving miles to my dressing room to pulverise my feet to such an extent that I forgot the pain in my head. ‘Mmmm, liver…’ he’d murmur, as I hit the ceiling, growling, or, as he ground a finger into the side of a toe, ‘Adrenals, hold on tight, you may feel this… .’ Regular acupuncture helps and so does detox. When pregnant with my daughter I was migraneous for the first three months. A naturopath put me on a strict diet of vegetables and it seemed to do the trick, although the first time I ate meat again it was like chewing gabardine.

But migraine is a slippery foe. My late mother, who suffered from them badly as a girl, managed them in later life by making herself sick. Afterwards she would be perfectly well again. I hated throwing up so much that I simply refused to follow suit, but a few years ago, headed for a chat-show couch with a pounding skull and a rigid spinal column, I dissolved a few salt crystals in warm water in the hope it would act as an emetic. About an hour later it struck me: not only had I not been sick, but I no longer had migraine. It couldn’t be that simple, could it? Could a dozen chips of pink Himalayan salt and some boiled water be the holy grail? Pfizer would have me pulverised! GlaxoSmithKline would take out a contract on my life! Johnson & Johnson would bury me in baby powder!

For six subsequent migraines, the saltwater worked its magic. I thought about taking out a patent. I couldn’t wait for the next neck-tightening, the dull feeling behind the eyes, the shutting down of all bodily functions and the inability to eat for days, the wrecking throbbing pain as the car negotiates the potholes in my drive. I excitedly relayed my discovery to my GP. He did his level best to hide his smirk.

Reader, the seventh time I tried it, it failed — and it has never worked since. There is something to be said, as always, about the power of suggestion. Once, after an operation followed by a blood transfusion, I had a migraine for 12 weeks. The hospital had me on suppositories twice a day and couldn’t get rid of me fast enough; I was a constant rebuke. But the migraine came with me, and stayed. Nobody believed me until a Vietnamese surgeon told me he’d seen this after transfusions in war zones. He said the bloods didn’t quite match and that after the 12th week it would go. Suggestible as ever, by week 13 I was cured.

Did you hear about the migraine-stricken Brit on holiday in France? He was given suppository pain relievers at the pharmacy, but couldn’t understand the instructions. Next day he went back to the pharmacy to complain: ‘For all the good they did me,’ he declared, ‘I might as well have shoved them up my arse.’