Agonising summer headaches are so bad they left me hooked on painkillers

HOLDING her head in her hands, Lisette Van Riel is plagued by an agonising thump rattling inside her skull.

Bright lights, loud noises, even simply standing up can incapacitate her. The cause? Summer headaches.

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Lisette Van Riel is plagued by agonising summer headaches
Hot weather sees a surge in the number of people suffering migraines, cluster headaches and tension headaches

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Hot weather sees a surge in the number of people suffering migraines, cluster headaches and tension headachesCredit: Getty
Lisette's pain was so bad she became addicted to ibuprofen

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Lisette’s pain was so bad she became addicted to ibuprofenCredit: Getty

While most of us are desperate for another heatwave, for the 39-year-old businesswoman and thousands like her, hot weather is the stuff of nightmares.

Lisette, from Ackworth, West Yorks, says: “When it’s bad, it’s like I’m being hit on the head with a big hammer.

“I feel like I want to remove my eyes — the pain at the back of my eye sockets is so intense.

“On bad days I used to take two 400mg ibuprofen every three to four hours.

‘PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY EXHAUSTED’

“I thought it was helping but I soon became addicted so if I didn’t take them, my headache would return with a vengeance.”

According to Parvinder Sagoo, superintendent pharmacist at Simply Meds Online, Lisette is not alone.

Summer sees a surge in the number of people suffering headaches, with three distinct types most common as temperatures rise.

“A number of things can trigger them, such as overexposure to direct sunlight, heat, overworking and dehydration,” Parvinder says.

“Headaches and migraines can be debilitating and can leave you ­feeling physically and mentally exhausted.”

For Lisette, founder of Doggy Lottery, a charity that raises money for dog-rescue centres, debilitating headaches are something she has had to learn to live with.

She says: “I have suffered from them since I was a little girl. I’ve known for years they get far worse in hot weather.”

But it was when she moved to Dubai for four years in 2013 that she realised the severity of her condition. The hot weather meant very little let-up.

Over the years, Lisette has seen many GPs but the result is always the same.

“It’s often about masking them or making them bearable, rather than treating them and finding the root cause,” she adds.

When it’s bad, it’s like I’m being hit on the head with a big hammer.

Lisette

“I’ve been offered different medication and all sorts of painkillers, but I’ve never been offered further investigation.”

In the past, her reliance on painkillers developed into an addiction, with Lisette topping up every few hours.

She says: “In 2008 a neurologist asked me to keep a diary and make a note of how often I was getting a headache and how many tablets I was taking.

“He concluded that I was addicted. I came off them immediately, but during withdrawal I went through the worst head pain of my life, for around a week.”

Years later and headaches are still a part of Lisette’s life. She adds: “Often they’re manageable but there have been so many times that I’ve had to phone in sick or cancel appointments or meeting friends because I know it will just get worse if I don’t stop what I’m doing and go and lie down.

“Sometimes I ignore the signs and then I end up having to be in bed for half a day.

“When I get a bad one, light and noises become intolerable. I can’t look at anything bright or light, I can’t stand up straight. If I’m in a situation where I can’t go and lie down in a dark room, I end up feeling nauseous and need to vomit.”

When Lisette feels a migraine coming on, she now takes prescription painkillers.

She says: “I was always scared I had some kind of brain tumour or something else serious causing the pain. In one way, I guess I am lucky it’s just headaches.

“But, in another way, they are so debilitating they can sometimes overshadow every decision I make.”

Lisette has seen plenty of GPs but none have been able to get rid of her headaches

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Lisette has seen plenty of GPs but none have been able to get rid of her headaches

The best pain relievers

SOENIA MEDICAL DIARY

THIS app allows healthcare providers to monitor their patients’ symptoms in real time and is suitable for headaches, migraines, epilepsy seizures and more. It’s been designed and tested by a neurology team, with specialist graphs that help doctors better understand short and long-term trends.

Platform: Apple iOS and Android

Cost: Free

IMAK HEADACHE MIGRAINE MASK

(£22.49, Amazon)

DESIGNED by an orthopaedic surgeon, the eye- mask pillow contains ergo beads which massage the area around the eyes and alleviate head pressure. This device can be used at room temperature or frozen for extra soothing.

MANAGE MY PAIN

AN app that helps users understand pain caused by migraine, arthritis and back pain, and provide evidence to their doctors.

Platform: Apple iOS

In-app costs: Five credits for £3.49 or monthly subscription of £3.99.

ACULIEF

(£20, Amazon)

THIS wearable tech works by applying pressure to the LI4 acupressure point on your hand, between your thumb and forefinger. Available in three sizes, the gadget is designed to provide natural relief of tension and headache throughout the day, using acu-pressure.

GAMMACORE

AVAILABLE on the NHS this year, the small hand-held device sends electrical stimulation through the neck via the vagus nerve to block pain signals from headaches. Around 11,000 headache sufferers are set to benefit from it on the NHS.

The main causes of head pain

IF two or more of the aggravating factors listed below apply to you, you could be at risk of developing summer headaches or migraines.

  •  Over-exposure to direct sunlight
  •  Dehydration from not drinking enough water each day
  •  Not wearing sunglasses or a hat while outdoors
  •  Overheating
  •  Working long hours in a hot room
  •  Being too hot at night, which in turn causes a disturbed sleeping pattern triggering daytime migraines
  •  Playing sport or exercising in the sun or heat
  •  Excessive sweating, which leads to dehydration
  •  Environmental pollution, which is heightened in summer

The different types of headaches

Type 1: Migraines

WHAT are they?

Migraines can cause excruciating, debilitating and throbbing pain, which builds up over a few hours or days, often on one side of the head.

Simple acts like walking or talking can make it worse, and most people have to lie down.

You may feel nauseous and be sensitive to smells or light, especially in the summer when there are more hours of intense sunlight.

Signs the day before include a change in appetite or cravings, and changes to how often you urinate. Some people see flashing lights, wavy lines or get blind spots.

What causes them?

Normal triggers include stress, anxiety, hormonal changes, smoking, sleep problems, strict diets, bright flashing lights and certain foods and drinks.

They are more likely in the summer due to hotter weather, increased sunlight and dehydration.

A bad sleep pattern or lack of sleep may also trigger a migraine, and in the summer we usually find it harder to sleep due to the heat.

How can you treat them?

Ensure you rest, lie down in a dark room and place a cold compress on your forehead.

Try to keep your eyes closed and rested. If you feel nauseous, drink plenty of fluids.

If your room is hot in summer, install a blackout blind and wear an eye mask to stop light hitting your retinas.

Try to stay cool with a fan, and wear light, cotton clothes when lying down.

If you suffer migraines regularly, speak to your GP. Drugs such as zolmitriptan are commonly used as treatment, and work by narrowing blood vessels around the brain to stop pain signals.

Type 2: Cluster headaches

 WHAT are they?

These occur suddenly and can cause pain either on one side of your head or behind one or both eyes.

They may happen at the same time every day for weeks, and the pain is typically worse for the first ten to 15 minutes but can last hours.

Your eyes may appear red and your nose might swell on the side where the pain occurs.

You might also experience light, sound and odour sensitivity and some people feel slightly nauseous.

What causes them?

Cluster headaches often happen at night, and irregular sleep is thought to be a cause.

They can be more common due to the heat disrupting sleep patterns.
Smoking, and drinking alcohol, can also be triggers.

How can you treat them?

There is a range of fast-acting medicines such as nasal sprays by Zomig or Imigran.

Ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol are also an option but you may need prescription medication from your GP if your cluster headaches are severe.

Simply Meds Online is now offering a same-day-delivery service for all purchases made before 3pm.

Type 3: Tension headaches

WHAT are they?

Also known as muscle-spasm or stress headaches, tension headaches are the most commonly seen in summer.

The pain is typically on both sides of the head and can feel as though something is being pulled tight around your head, or pressing down hard on your face, head or neck. You may also be sensitive to light and sound.

What causes them?

Body positions that put your head and neck under stress can trigger these headaches.

Sitting in front of a computer for hours in the same position, or pressing your phone to your shoulder when taking a call, can increase your risk.

Other triggers may be stress, a heavy workload – which can happen if colleagues are off in the summer – skipping meals, depression, anxiety and lack of sleep.

Underlying conditions like arthritis, sleep disorders and grinding your teeth can also be a cause.

How can you treat them?

First things first, your GP will want to treat any underlying conditions.

But if that doesn’t work, you may want to try over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol.

Other tips to relieve the pain are to take a warm shower or place a warm cloth on the back of your neck.

Some people find meditation can help reduce stress levels, which are the common cause of these headaches.

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