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Alexandra “Aly” Raiman conquered the world of artistic gymnastics as the captain of the “Fierce Five” and “Final Five” U.S. Olympic teams, taking home multiple medals that include three golds. The inspirational 27-year-old from Needham, MA, is a UNICEF Kid Power ambassador and bravely came forward in solidarity with the many victims who were sexually abused by former team physician, Larry Nassar. Since retiring from gymnastics, Raisman earned herself even more fans by placing fourth in Season 16 of “Dancing with the Stars,” and has recently began sharing her personal experiences of migraine.
Muscle & Fitness Hers sat down with the decorated athlete to learn more about the symptoms and treatments of migraine, and how the debilitating condition often goes unchecked.
“As a gymnast, I always tried to power through,” says Raisman. “I wasn’t taught, when I was younger, to reflect on how I was feeling. I wasn’t empowered to advocate for myself or to be able to ask for help, and so for me it was always just trying to push through, which I think a lot of athletes can relate to. I can remember often times, during competitions, after competitions, and same with training, I would get extreme sensitivity around my scalp and I always thought that it was because I had my hair up in a really tight bun, but I realized through working with Dr. Blumenfeld (director of the Headache Center of Southern California) that this is actually a symptom of a migraine. And when I look back, now that I understand more of the symptoms, of what a migraine looks like, I’ve realized that there were so many times during competitions and even now in my everyday life, because I do a lot of public speaking now, and at times a migraine is triggered.”
“My mom also suffers with migraines,” says Raisman. “It’s actually more common in women and a lot of people that are suffering from migraines go undiagnosed. That’s why I am very passionate about talking about this.”
Indeed, the Migraine Research Foundation says that 28 of the 39 million American’s suffering with migraine are women. Conversely, it is more common among boys during childhood, and it is thought that as female estrogen levels rise through puberty, women’s likelihood of suffering will increase. Many women also find that migraine symptoms are affected by menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
“When I was growing up, I would watch my mom be in bed with the lights out, in so much pain, and so uncomfortable, but I never actually put 2 and 2 together that I could actually be struggling with migraine as well,” recalls the Olympic icon.
Being as fit as an Olympian doesn’t preclude you from suffering with the symptoms of migraine. “I have been struggling for years and years with nausea, fatigue, light-sensitivity, headaches, and neck pain,” says Raisman. “And, to be honest, I had no idea why I was feeling this way, and so when I was finally diagnosed, it felt validating because I could finally understand why I was feeling the way that I do.” Symptoms also include hazy vision or blind spots, dizziness and difficulty with speaking.
A Migraine diagnoses will likely include an evaluation of your family’s medical history. A doctor who is trained in treating headaches, such as a neurologist, is often able to provide a fairly quick appraisal on whether you are a migraine sufferer. In complex or severe cases, MRI or CT scans may also be used in order to rule out other causes of head pain.
Diet is thought to play a role in triggering migraines and so sufferers are encouraged to avoid nitrate-rich foods such as bacon and sausage. Red wine, processed and pickled foods, and cultured dairy products like yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream may have negative consequences. On the other hand, ginger may help with easing nausea and migraine severity and duration. Magnesium rich foods such as seeds, nuts, eggs, and milk are thought to help since magnesium deficiency has been linked to migraines. Exercises such as yoga and meditation sessions are also relied upon by many sufferers to ease their symptoms
On the medical side, Raisman was recently prescribed with UBRELVY, and says that the tablets are providing her with great relief. Other advocates of UBRELVY include tennis ace Serena Williams. According to the company’s website, this is “the first pill of its kind designed to directly block the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGPR) protein believed to play a major role in migraine attacks by causing pain and inflammation.” UBRELVY is only prescribed for adults who are acute migraine sufferers. “It does cause a little bit of nausea and fatigue,” says Dr Blumenfeld. “It gives about 60% of patients migraine relief within two hours, and one in five free of headache in two hours.”
“I know that a lot of people are struggling in silence,” says Raisman. “Whether it’s someone that is suffering with migraines, or anxiety or depression, or going through something really traumatic and trying to navigate that, I would say it is really important to remember to treat ourselves the way that we would treat a loved one or someone that we care about. If someone came to us that wasn’t feeling well and was really struggling and if something was affecting them so much that it was impacting their everyday life, most of us would suggest that they see a doctor and that they get help. And I think it’s so important that we offer ourselves the same advice and kindness and we do get checked out because what we are feeling is real, and it’s valid, and I think it’s so important that we all feel the best that we can.”
Winning advice from the Olympic champion!