I’ve suffered from headaches and migraines for years. In addition to being debilitating at times, they can be straight up annoying – no one wants to have something fun planned or an important day at work only to have to bow out at the last minute due to a migraine.
Migraines are such a mystery in the medical community that even migraine specialists can’t pinpoint a definitive underlying cause of migraines. This makes diagnosis and treatment a long and often unsatisfactory road.
After complaining to doctors for eight years about headaches only to be told repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with me, I finally got a migraine diagnosis and prescription for an abortive migraine medication. I thought I finally had an answer and treatment plan that would work for me – until I tried the medication. While it kept its promise to stop a migraine in its tracks, the medication also came with side effects including dizziness, muscle soreness, anxiety, and most frustrating – medication-overuse headaches (MOH), a type of withdrawal where too frequent use of medication actually becomes the headache trigger.
Another recommended treatment for migraines and other headache disorders is to identify triggers and avoid them. Sounds easy enough right? Unfortunately, triggers range from specific foods and drinks to hormonal changes to sleep patterns to physical and emotional stress to changes in the weather. And while certain things like caffeine may be a trigger for one person they may be a cure or preventive measure for another.
Why keep a headache journal?
My first year in college, I developed a strong aversion to tortellini and had no idea why. I mean hello—it’s pasta with cheese in it. I had no answer to why I hated it so much until I realized my college dining hall served it every Monday and I already had a migraine by the time I went to dinner and saw it there. Turns out I was getting a migraine every Monday, which is how I learned that stress is a migraine trigger for me.
A headache journal is a tool that cues you into patterns like this that help you get at the root of headaches and their causes. It allows you to track possible triggers and other factors involved in headaches so that you can identify your specific triggers and avoid them.
What I tracked in my headache journal
For thirty days I kept track of the following variables:
- Total hours of sleep
- Everything I ate
- Water intake
- Any caffeine or alcohol
- Significant sources of stress
- Hormonal changes
- Any additional factors (like altitude on a flight)
- If I got a headache – its severity, duration, and anything that helped
What I learned from tracking my headaches
Going into this project, I may have had visions of finding a singular and blatant cause for my headaches and being able to rid myself of migraines forever. And while that unfortunately didn’t happen, I was able to confirm certain triggers and identify new ones.
I already knew that sugar, alcohol, and dehydration were major migraine triggers for me and sure enough my headache journal confirmed all of the above. I expected inconsistencies in sleep to be a problem for me and I was right. When my schedule was crazier and my sleep schedule became erratic, I was hit with more headaches than when I got a consistent eight hours at the same time every night.
The most interesting and unexpected thing I noticed was that hormonal changes were a big trigger for me. I’ve never paid much attention to how my headaches fit into my cycle, and that’s something I plan to keep tracking.
I still have a lot of questions and uncertainties about my migraine triggers and what causes migraines in general, but this was definitely a beneficial exercise that helped me identify things I can do (or not do) to hopefully reduce my total number of headache days per month.
How can you keep a similar journal?
If you suffer from any type of headache disorder or other elusive physical health challenges like digestive issues or stomach problems, it may be a good idea to keep a similar health focused journal.
I kept a spreadsheet with each area that I was tracking and filled it in every day. At the end of the month I was able to compare the headache days with the headache-free days to identify any patterns.
Prefer a hard copy or need some guidance about what exactly to track? You can find headache diary templates online to help you get started. Print one out or use it as a guideline to create your own.