One in 10 people in Ireland struggles with migraine.
It is more than just a headache – symptoms of migraine include dizziness, blurred vision, nausea and cloudy thinking, as well as persistent pain in the head, neck and sometimes shoulders that can go on for hours. Cravings for certain foods and general irritability often come before the onset of the migraine.
Welsh woman Beth Francis was diagnosed with migraine at the age of nine. Her mother and her grandmother have also suffered from the condition. But, it wasn't until her late teens and early twenties that her symptoms got worse and she had up to 28 migraines a month.
She and her partner, Andy Clark, decided they needed to do something positive to complement the medical treatment she was receiving. "I was studying for a PhD in marine biology, but I found I was spending so much time in bed with chronic pain. I felt hopeless and that there was nothing I could do to control my life," explains Francis. "We realised that we had lost contact with nature and the sea and become quite lethargic so we decided to challenge ourselves to get in the sea for 100 days."
Not only did the couple opt for regular sea swims but they also decided to document their experience. 100 Days of Vitamin Sea, which the Migraine Association of Ireland showed at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin in September, is an uplifting documentary about Clark and Francis's regular dips in the cold waters of north Wales interspersed with Francis's descriptions of her migraines from under her bed covers.
“The sea in north Wales is a wonderful place to swim even if it’s very cold – freezing – but once you’re in, you always feel fantastic,” says Francis. Clark, who is an independent film-maker, chose various scenic locations to shoot the documentary that, he jokes, would encourage people to holiday in Wales.
‘Catatonic with pain’
“It’s difficult when your partner is vivacious, full of life, witty, clever, charming and brilliant and then is catatonic with pain and you don’t know when the next one will be,” says Clark.
While Clark and Francis are keen to point out that cold-water swimming hasn’t been proven to reduce either the frequency or severity of migraine, it did have that effect for Francis. Sometimes, she would even venture into the sea while having a migraine and find that her pain levels reduced significantly.
“Just being in nature makes me feel happier and more in control of my life and illness. It’s the most incredible, empowering thing I’ve ever done,” she says. Since she embarked on regular swimming in the sea, her migraines have reduced to 10 a month.
In the film, Prof Michael DePledge, a researcher into human health and the environment, says studies have shown that people who live within a kilometre of the coast have much better self-reported health than those who live further inlands.
Throughout their experiment, Francis continued her medical treatment – various courses of pain-reducing medication and nerve blocks and then, one year later, Botox treatments , which she has found to be the most effective so far.
Mike Tipton, professor of physiology at the University of Portsmouth, has speculated that the beneficial effects of being in cold water could be due to the cold-shock response. "These cold-water receptors, which are found more in the hands, feet, face and lips, stimulated the autonomic nervous system which slows down the heart rate," he says.
Reduction in severity
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth are now embarking on a study to see if sufferers of migraine will see reduction in severity and frequency of migraine attacks if they have regular cold baths. Francis immersed herself in a cold bath while in the throes of a very severe migraine and she found her pain reduced from level 9 to 4 on a self-reported pain scale.
"I will continue to use medical treatment but 'vitamin sea' helps me feel good and we have connected with so many people with chronic pain all over the world," says Francis, who is continuing her PhD in marine biology at Bangor University on a part-time basis. "It's not about making the migraine go away – it's about making it easier to live with and enjoying the journey of life."