For migraine sufferers, early warning signs are a godsend that often enable them to sidestep the pain through early medication. Everyone with migraine eventually learns their own patterns and triggers, how to adapt their behavior to avoid known triggers, and what to do when presented with recognizable warning signs.
Some may learn early on that red wine or chocolate are a quick route to pain. And for many more the aura phase of the headache is the first noticeable sign that bad times are in their near future. Auras can be visual disturbances such as lights, bright zigzags or reduced periphery vision. Auras can also include non-visual symptoms such as tingling or numbness in arms or legs, and sometimes even speech disturbances or difficulty concentrating.
When you can recognize early warning signals, you’re half way towards controlling the severity of the imminent attack. But not everyone can. With some, by the time the aura phase starts it’s already too late.
Migraine alert dogs are just such an early warning system. Much like seizure alert dogs, seeing eye dogs or hearing dogs, these special animals are trained to recognize changes in their owner’s physical or psychological behaviors that signal migraine onset. They do this by picking up on the prodrome phase of an attack, which is the very start of the complex migraine cycle.
The Prodromal Phase of Migraines
Starting up to 48 hours before an attack, the prodrome phase signals changes in what would be considered the patient’s ‘normal’, balanced central nervous system. These small changes gradually build until the aura phase is reached, quickly followed by pain, then the final postdrome phase where the sufferer feels the aftereffects of the headache.
Prodrome symptoms may include:
- Food cravings
- Mood changes
- Difficulty speaking
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Feeling tired
- Frequent bathroom trips
- Feeling hyperactive
- Either constipation or diarrhea
Maybe you’ve experienced these symptoms but never associated them with migraine before. Studies have found that up to 40% of migraine sufferers experience a prodrome phase.
Migraine Alert Dogs
Every dog owner knows what close attention dogs pay to their owners, never seeming to miss a trick. They recognize when you’re going out alone or when they’re likely to be invited along, and some have a heightened sense that seems to tell them when you’re on your way home.
Migraine dogs have training that puts this deep knowledge they have of you to good work. They know to alert you when they sense changes in your behavior, which could be any of the above-mentioned symptoms. It seems almost magical, until you realize that hearing dogs do much the same when they let their owner’s know the phone is ringing or someone is at the door. Alongside their deep understanding of normal behavior patterns, Migraine Alert dogs can use their acute sense of smell to detect changes in body chemistry, in much the same way that drug detection dogs do their work in airports.
Ways in which they might alert you include:
- Not leaving your side
- Staring intently at you
It’s believed that all dogs are able to detect these changes, but not all dogs realize you’re interested in learning what they know. Also, not all dogs have the right temperament to undergo the training that makes them reliable.
Some dogs do it naturally. In one study among dog-owning migraine sufferers, over 50% of participants reported that their dogs behaved differently towards them before the onset of a headache. Closer to 60% reported that their dogs had actively alerted them to a coming attack.
Learning From Migraine Alert Dogs
Dog ownership, even service dog ownership, isn’t something that is suitable for everyone. But, if dogs can understand us deeply enough to alert us when something changes, we can also do that for ourselves.
Migraine sufferers are commonly advised to keep a diary to help them detect triggers, symptoms and duration or severity. By paying attention to, and noting, an extended range of behaviors, it would also be possible to identify your own prodrome symptoms and gain even more warning of an impending attack.
For instance, are you suddenly sleepy one day then find yourself with a headache later on? Were you recently running off to the bathroom more often before the migraine today? Do you tend to feel low, depressed, or oddly happy some time before an attack? Prodrome symptoms that include food cravings could also alert you to danger triggers, if you find you can’t stay away from chocolate on some days.
Whether you’re a dog owner or not, becoming aware of your prodrome symptoms (if any) can help with early warnings. And for dog owners, try to notice if you get a headache some time after your dog starts acting differently around you.
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