How I finally conquered the misery of migraines: They've wrecked Status Quo Francis Rossi's life since he was four
22:05 GMT, 9 April 2012
As the frontman of Status Quo, Francis Rossi is famous for his head-banging performances.
Yet as he belted out hits such as Rocking All Over The World during the band’s many concerts, he often wanted to be anywhere but on stage — because he was suffering with agonising migraines.
During his 20s — at the peak of Status Quo’s fame — Francis, now 62, would have one a week.
'I would dose myself up with painkillers and try to get through it – you can't just pull out of a big gig,' said Francis Rossi of his migraines
He says: ‘Being a migraine sufferer is incapacitating. I knew when one was about to come on as I’d get a spinning sensation around my eyes and feel the urge to yawn. I would often be sick.
‘About 40 minutes later I would get this intense pain — as if my brain was going to explode.
'I had to just lie down in a quiet room.’
However, the crushing migraines would often strike when he was preparing for a live show, with flashing lights and thousands of screaming fans.
The father of eight, who lives in Surrey with his second wife, recalls: ‘I would dose myself up with painkillers and try to get through it — you can’t just pull out of a big gig.
'If I started to feel really bad then I might hang around at the back by the drums and somehow just keep going.
'Once it was over I would often come off the stage and throw up.
‘During the Seventies and Eighties I don’t know how I carried on.
'I think it was because I’d been having migraines since I was four, so I was used to having to get through them. I didn’t bother going to a doctor until I was 40.’
Francis’s bandmates learned to recognise when he had a migraine coming on. But he became frustrated at most people’s lack of awareness.
‘They don’t realise how big a deal a migraine is,’ he says. ‘They often say: “Yeah, I had a headache like that and took Nurofen.”
'A migraine is nothing like that.
'In my case, it would be two or three days of agony. Painkillers would do nothing unless you took them before the pain had built up.’
'If I started to feel really bad then I might hang around at the back by the drums and somehow just keep going,' said Francis
Eight million people in Britain suffer from migraines, with women affected more than men. Generally, they start in adolescence and trail off beyond the age of 50.
A migraine is a headache accompanied by other elements such as sickness, nausea and sensitivity to light, noise or smells. It can last from four hours to more than three days.
Dr Giles Elrington, a medical director at the National Migraine Centre, London, says: ‘If you get them regularly, they can take over your life.’
The cause is still not fully understood, but they often run in families — Francis’s mother had them, too. Consultant neurologist Dr Elrington says: ‘What seems to be the case is that people who get migraines have a lower tolerance to brain stimulation.
‘For example, they find light bothers them at a lower level than those who don’t.’
A new theory is that there is a problem with nerves. ‘A nerve sends electrical messages to another nerve by transferring ions,’ says Dr Elrington.
‘It is thought that in people who get migraines, the ion channels are at fault and make the nerve malfunction.’
Another factor is thought to be a shortfall of the brain chemical serotonin, which as well as helping with mood, is also important for carrying messages around the brain.
Dr Elrington adds: ‘Changes in biorhythms — for example, going to bed later than normal or having a lie-in — can be another trigger, as can skipping meals, fluctuating hormone levels in women and even changes in the weather.’
Unless migraine sufferers do something about their symptoms, they tend to get worse each time.
Francis's bandmates learned to recognise when he had a migraine coming on
Dr Andy Dowson, director of headache services at King’s College Hospital, London, says: ‘After one, you are more likely to have another migraine, and the threshold at which they develop drops.
'You need to treat the migraine aggressively in the early stages.’
Finding the right treatment is trial and error — there is no cure-all. Medication such as triptans, which mimic serotonin, can help.
Over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen work for some, but many people are forced to migrate to stronger ones, such as codeine and naproxen.
Anti-sickness medication can improve the painkillers’ efficiency by increasing their absorption. There are other options such as Botox injected into the head, which is thought to change the messages coming to the nerves.
However, the National Institute For Health And Clinical Excellence (NICE), which decides how NHS money is allocated, says there is not enough evidence to approve funding for it.
Like many, Francis struggled to find the right treatment for him. He has tried various preventative medications and painkillers, such as coproxamol and tramadol.
‘They did help, but they would make me feel drowsy and lead to constipation,’ he says.
At times, he would bang his head against a wall in a futile bid to alleviate the pain. ‘I did it out of desperation — I just didn’t know what else to do,’ he says.
‘I was never able to identify a particular trigger for the attacks — they would just come on.
‘I remember being about six and getting this crushing pain. I was often off school for two or three days a week, so lost a lot of schooling.
'My mum gave me painkillers, but I don’t remember them helping much.’
As an adult, he got into the habit of carrying painkillers with him everywhere.
‘One thing I have found helpful is a cold flannel on my forehead, but it has to be really cold,’ he says. Dr Downson agrees this can help.
‘Applying something cold or hot to the painful area can reduce symptoms,’ he says.
Francis’s migraines dropped off in his 30s, but came back in his 40s, when he finally decided to seek help.
‘It was ironic really because it was just after I gave up cocaine that they started again,’ he says.
His experience is not typical.
‘Recreational drugs tend to make migraines worse,’ says Dr Dowson.
‘However, any change to the normal routine can trigger them — even a change such as giving up drugs and alcohol may do it.’
In the end, Francis used a combination of acupuncture, kinesiology (an alternative therapy that assesses how the body moves), and the Asian herb tongkat ali, which his manager recommended after it helped with his bad back.
Many migraine sufferers try natural remedies, but there is no hard proof a lot of them work.
The only supplements with evidence they are affective are magnesium, vitamin B2, Coenzyme Q10, feverfew and butterbur, says Susan Haydon, of the Migraine Trust.
‘A placebo-controlled trial has demonstrated each one,’ she says.
Francis, though, believes his regime has helped.
‘I started having fewer attacks. Ten years ago, I stopped taking the daily pill sanomigran, which helps prevent attacks,’ he says.
‘So far this year I’ve had only two migraines.’
He is speaking out to try and improve people’s understanding of the condition.
‘Migraines have stopped me doing masses of things,’ he says.
‘People should never think a migraine is just a headache — it really isn’t.’
Francis Rossi is a patron of the charity National Migraine Centre.