A little background first. If you prefer to skip that, click here to jump directly to the product recommendation…
My memories of high school are a blur by now. I can pick out snapshots — crouching in the fetal position outside the music building, the chill of the winter fog seeping deep down into my bones, the sensation of my “feminine sanitary products” reaching a saturation point, and trying not to let my chatting friends hear me moaning for the pain emanating from within me. Collapsing onto the grass out front, waiting for my mother to pick me up to take me to the ER for uncontrollable tremors, after the school nurse refused to even let me rest in her office, much less go home for the day. Dropping off a schedule change request form in the counselor’s office, seeking to reduce the amount of walking between classes… but most of it I honestly don’t remember.
I know that in the spring of my junior year, apparently I went to the doctor for headaches. I know my headaches intimately now, and I remember having had them back then, but I don’t remember ever thinking to seek help for them. I ended up at a rather gruff and arrogant ass of a neurologist, who nonetheless knew his stuff. He asked me to describe the headaches — which was difficult for me; to this day I have problems recognizing patterns of pain until they’re just about to knock me in the face — where they occured, when, what it felt like, how long it lasted, what helped, what made it worse. And of course, he knocked on my knees with that triangle-on-a-stick to check for my reaction.
After a full exam and a review of my history, with me sitting awkwardly on a table shoved up against the wall, he looked at me and declared:
“You have a very long neck.”
That was my diagnosis. Verbatim.
He explained that my muscles were significantly underdeveloped, and with the noted anatomical variation, that meant that I couldn’t hold my head up straight. This resulted in pain in my neck and shoulder muscles (which were the worst area for pain at the time, and also severely tense), which would then radiate upward into my head, which triggered migraines.
(Of course, all of this is precisely what a vulnerable, self-loathing teen girl needs to hear. But that wasn’t his fault.)
It always rubs the wrong way when someone uses the word “migraine” to mean “really bad headache,” when the two aren’t remotely in the same league. (It grates the same way when someone complains that whatever hurt so much, they had to take a single Tylenol! Oh dearie me! — it’s not an entirely rational reaction, but there it is.) These migraines are disabling in the strictest literal sense of the word. It progresses to a point where the pain is so bad I want, need, to scream, cry, moan — but I can’t, because to do so would involve force and movement and sound and any of those things would only make my condition worse. It is the point at which laying my head on the softest down pillow feels like grinding it against a stone cold rock so hard as to rip skin and draw blood. It is the point at which I know the position I am in is making the pain worse, but the pain is so bad that I can’t move to position myself any other way.
And I can remain in this state, or at any point in the process leading to this state, for weeks on end, the pain building and subsiding, and sometimes catching me by surprise with a sudden severity for which I could find no cause. Recovering from these attacks required careful, diligent effort, completely rearranging the world to create an environment that added no further burden, so that I could patiently wait out the pain.
This is no mere “headache.”
He prescribed physical therapy, which sucked so much strength out of me that I started receiving failing grades on my progress reports in school, where before that time I had maintained a perfect 4.0 average. I remember fighting to get them to delay the PT until after the school year was done, so I could do it when I had no other obligations, but to no avail. My AP US History teacher, in an act of compassion, and aware of my aspirations to college, raised my second semester grade from a D- to a C- in light of my AP test score of two. Those of you who have taken AP exams will understand precisely how pathetic that made me feel.
Those headaches have stayed with me since — in fact they were the primary cause leading me to drop out of college the first time, and then drop half my classes the second. (Then the anxiety kicked in full-force and I gave up for good.)
Over the years I have learned how they progress, what triggers them, what to do in response, and what to do to prevent them altogether. It’s a rather complicated dance, like the relationship you have with that supervisor who you know can’t stand you, and the egg shells you walk on so as not to provoke large-scale conflict.
The modifications I have made to my life to deal with these headaches are pretty major, so I am sure I’ll write about more of them over time. But with this as an introduction, I’m going to single out one product that has done me very well ever since I plunked down a painful $105.99 for it:
I bought mine at Bed, Bath & Beyond. It’s the same price just about anywhere you can buy it, but I wanted to be able to feel it for myself before blindly handing over the cash for something that could turn out to be ineffective at best, disastrous at worst.
Understand the context here: what I sleep on is imperative to my pain state, most particularly regarding my head, neck and shoulders. It is my first line of defense against those awful migraines. If I get my sleep fucked up, I can pretty much count on the warning signs popping up eagerly the next day. And once the process is kicked off, like a car rolling downhill, it’s pretty damn difficult to bring it to a stop.
My head and neck need careful support. It has to be at the right height — too high or too low pulls at my neck muscles, and a crick is the least of what I’ll be getting the next morning. The material is important too; a nice soft pillow might not offer enough support, while a firm supportive pillow might be too hard a surface to lie on.
Basically, my sleep life is Goldilocks on crack.
It gets frustrating, because no matter what kind of pillow I buy — and trust me, whatever you have to suggest, I’ve tried it — it seems like it never lasts more than a few months, whether it goes flat, or gets too lumpy, or whatever else. And then I have to go and flush another $50-100+ down the hole.
(Health is expensive. Health is especially expensive when the “medical equipment” you need is mostly specialized forms of the things everyone uses in their everyday lives. And while you’re at it, throw on the therapy bills, because sooner or later you’re going to develop a complex about the fact that all of these things you count on to be able to climb out from under the pain every day are considered a “luxury” by any normal person… What feels like pampering to them feels a little more like getting an infected tooth pulled to you, but outsiders only ever seem to see it as that privileged pleasure, which makes you feel like a right ass simply for daring to adequately treat your condition!)
I’d been looking at “memory foam” for a little while. It seemed to offer the support I was looking for, without the risk of going flat in two months. My problem was that most of the pillows made from it were too hard. If it hurt to try to push my hand down into the foam, how was it going to feel to try to rest my head on it?
This pillow was the one exception I could find. Each side of the pillow (the front and the back, and both long sides of each) is a different construction. I confess I don’t know what the hell they were aiming for with each one, but regardless it allows a little bit of variation, whether I’m really needing that high support one night or a softer pillow that yields more to pressure another.
And I really did luck out with this one. (It’s rather hard to truly test a pillow in the middle of a retail store.) When I took it home and out of its box, threw it on the bed and lay down on it for a test — it felt good. The material was just slightly soft and giving, but it held firm enough to keep my head where it should be.
But I have learned, also, not to put too much stock in my initial response to something. I find that I can only ever accurately gauge my condition when I have the perspective that time gives. It’s hard to tell how tall you are just by standing up.
This one, though — it’s been a good five months now and the pillow is still doing really well. Used to be that I had to fluff and fold and smoosh and shape my pillow to get it to behave how I needed it to — and I would still often wake up with that familiar pain in my neck muscles, and have to spend the rest of the day trying to chase it off rather than being able to do whatever else I needed to do that day. I would judge when a pillow got too flat by when I went at least two or three weeks waking up with those headaches every day rather than “just” every few days!
But this pillow is just a matter of lying down — no adjustment needed — and five months later it’s just as strong and resilient as it was when I bought it. I’ve had a couple headaches (and I do believe it’s been limited to a couple) and they were triggered by other forces. And even when I have a headache already, I can rest my head on this pillow ok — I used to keep an overly-soft pillow around for my migraine nights, when I needed something as soft as possible, because my head was so, so sensitive to pressure. I haven’t had to switch pillows like that at all.
There is a lot more to migraine prevention for me, but it seems that I have this aspect of it nailed. And with as many things as I have to pay attention to just to live something resembling a “normal” life — those points of confidence are a true blessing.
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