Brenda Morgan recalls headaches so bad that "if I'd had a gun, I would have shot myself."
Kathy Aronis has lived with "some sort of headache" almost daily for 20 years.
Morgan, a nurse, and Aronis, an office manager, are among 28 million Americans who live with migraine headaches. A total of 45 million suffer from some kind of recurring headache.
Migraines, linked to abnormalities of blood flow in certain parts of the brain, can bring on nausea and light flashes, can last hours to days and can be triggered by foods and environmental conditions that don't affect others. The usual suspects include bright lights, loud noises, red wine, chocolate and aged cheese.
Migraines can be hormonal, hitting three times more women than men. They tend to run in families.
Less debilitating than migraines, but more common, are chronic tension headaches, affecting 40 percent of the population. They're more dull ache than throbbing pain, like a tight band squeezing your head.
Causes include bad posture, neck strain, squinting, stress and bending too long over a computer.
Other common headaches are sinus headaches and cluster headaches, which usually hit behind one eye. Combos include tension-migraine headaches and sinus-migraines. Rebound headaches are caused by taking too many painkillers for headaches.
Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints, claiming 150 diagnostic categories, according to the National Headache Foundation. Yet they are invisible and almost impossible to measure, said neurologist Dr. Allan Bernstein.
Bernstein leads a monthly headache support group at Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol and said, "You can't image a headache. You can't see it. You can't do a blood test. It's not even that well appreciated in the medical community."
That's why support groups help, he said.
"Everyone with chronic headaches has had someone say, 'Just live with it.' A group validates that you're not crazy, not making this up to get attention or just wanting drugs."
Numerous headache drugs, over-the-counter and prescription, promise to relieve inflammation, block pain or shrink swollen blood vessels; but Morgan, who teaches headache classes at Kaiser Santa Rosa, said, "There is no magic treatment, no magic pill."
<b>How to adapt</b>
Bernstein said of his Palm Drive group, "Most people here have used medicine and have figured out that drugs are not the answer." Rather, he said, "the goal is to find out how to adapt and go on with your life."
Aronis of Rohnert Park has classic migraines with an aura, flashing lights that precede the pain. She has tried multiple drugs but relies more on chiropractic sessions and biofeedback.
When her headaches are especially bad, she takes Imitrex, a migraine drug, with two Aleve. Or she tries to stave off the pain by going to bed with the curtains closed.
She'd rather not. "That's not real life, to miss everything and go into a dark room," Aronis said.
"People will do anything to get their life back," said Morgan, who recommends calming the nervous system with vitamins that include magnesium, B2 and B12.
A combination of three Advils with Coca Cola or Pepsi (not diet) is known as "the headache cocktail," but it only works for some. Same with coffee (full-on, not decaf), which can be a friend but may also cause headaches.