Tuesday, 18 September 2007

When the silverfish start to dance...


A SMUDGE on the car windscreen won’t go away.
A squirt of water and quick flick of windscreen wipers makes no difference, neither does a firm, fast rub with a cloth on the inside glass.
Damn. The smudge has become a silverfish that slips out of sight.
Within minutes it’s joined by a line of quicksilver critters doing a zigzag dance in the peripheral vision of the driver’s eyes.
Slow-moving commuter traffic becomes a terrifying distortion of movement and flashing metal. So, with exaggerated care, the young woman noses her car to the side of the motorway and waits until a policeman finds her slumped over the steering wheel, hands covering light-sensitive eyes.
I got a police escort that day more than 20 years ago, because the man in blue knew what was going on in my head.
He was a migraine sufferer too. We are among 400,000 New Zealanders affected by this neurological disorder.
Of those sufferers, called migraineurs, 300,000 are women. The 3:1 ratio can possibly be blamed on hormone irregularities, which are listed among the triggers for this invisible illness.
Lack of sleep, stress, relaxation after stress, fatigue, overuse of over-the-counter pain relievers, irregular exercise, bright lights and smoke are named as other possible migraine starters. So is diet, including cheese, red wine and yes, coffee. Double damn.
While there are hundreds of research programmes going on around the world, scientists have yet to locate the definitive cause of this often debilitating disease.
“It is thought a migraine attack is triggered within the brain itself,” says the National Headache Foundation, in the United States.
The foundation says that once an attack begins, it is believed the pain and other symptoms of migraine stem from an inflammatory process.
This may be caused by an interaction between the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve responsible for sensation in the face) and blood vessels in the coverings of the brain.
The brain chemical, serotonin, is linked to this inflammation, but its role is not yet clear.
Scientists in Japan are studying this connection.
While researchers have yet to pin down the underlying culprit, or culprits, there is no doubt it’s painfully real for the afflicted.
“Migraine is a legitimate, biological disease characterised by throbbing head pain, usually located on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and/or sound,” the American foundation says.
“Migraine is more common than asthma, diabetes or congestive heart failure,” its website says.
Similar information is echoed throughout the internet, including on the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand’s site.
“Though the causes are not precisely known, it is clear that migraine is a genetic disorder,” it says.
Global research isn’t good news for children of migraineurs. If one parent is a sufferer, there’s a 50% chance their children will also be afflicted. But if both parents get migraines, there’s a 75% probability their kids will inherit the illness.
The highest incidence of migraine occurs in both men and women aged between 20 and 45, but even toddlers can get migraines.
In fact children can get stomach migraines, which present as severe tummy aches.
Among all sufferers, only about 20% of people experience visual disturbances that herald the onset of a pounding head. This telltale sign is called a migraine aura.
People may see light flashes, blind spots, shimmering lights, or zigzag lines.
Or a smudge on a windscreen that turns into silverfish…

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