How swimming helped my migraine
By: Rachel Jack, who lives with chronic vestibular migraine
‘Are your headaches all better now then?’
I think this was one of the most frustrating questions that I got asked after I was diagnosed with chronic vestibular migraine back in 2018. An invisible and misunderstood illness that even my doctor had no knowledge of when a neurologist made the diagnosis after a year of feeling gradually more and more unwell.
I can track the first symptoms back to a misjudged ride on the teacups with the children and first visiting the doctor when I still felt like I was on the ride two weeks later. A feeling of being permanently ‘off kilter’ and nauseous slowly developed into a constant and sometimes debilitating pressure in my head along with a huge range of other symptoms, including loss of feeling in my left side, occasional deafness, intense lethargy, dizziness, intense thirst, and feeling like I was viewing everything through a slightly wonky lens. However, there was rarely any actual headaches.
After a whole year of doctor, optician, hospital, acupuncturist, and A&E visits, and after every test imaginable, I began to even doubt myself. The huge relief of the diagnosis was however short lived when I reacted really badly to the medication that the neurologist had prescribed. With the symptoms at their worst and my body struggling to clear the meds, I hit total rock bottom. At the age of 36 I thought I would never be able to live life to the full with a clear head again.
I recall one weekend shortly after and the children asked to go swimming. I had always been a water baby and enjoyed swimming, but it was a huge struggle physically and mentally to get to the pool. However, when I was in the water I felt the pressure in my head begin to lift, I not only enjoyed it but I actually felt a bit better for the first time in a very long time. A few dips with the kids led to me swimming more, a few laps became a few kilometres, and I felt my symptoms improve week on week. I even ventured into the world of open water swimming, entering a couple of events and pushing myself a little harder. The more I was in the water the better my symptoms were.
Lockdown and the closure of pools definitely meant a backwards step in my physical and mental health, my symptoms were noticeably worse and the worry of regressing to where I had been a couple of years earlier was definitely at the forefront of my mind.
Being in the water is without a doubt better than any medication where the side effects are worse than the symptoms. My body is less reliant on my balance system, my head clears, the exercise boosts my mood, and the water quenches my thirst. I genuinely believe that swimming gave me back my life.