Whitney Cummings Finally Got Her Migraines Under Control After Years of Suffering: 'It Blew My Mind'

The comedian relies on a treatment regimen and a healthy lifestyle to conquer the debilitating attacks: 'If you give me two hours, I can usually nip it in the bud"

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Photo: Jai Lennard/FOX

For too many years, Whitney Cummings considered her frequent migraine attacks a part of life — so much so, she says, that when she finally got them under control, "it blew my mind."

"I remember being like, do people just move through the world without a throbbing head?" the 39-year-old comedian tells PEOPLE. "The absence of migraines felt like an opioid. That's how wild it was."

Yet though she hasn't suffered an attack in over two years, Cummings still identifies herself as a migraine sufferer. "I sometimes just want to 'new truth' it and go, 'I used to have them, and I don't anymore," she says, but she adds, she still feels a responsibility to talk about it, especially to other women sufferers.

"So many women are affected, and they're losing a lot of their life force and time," Cummings says. "Who knows how many are afraid to go live their bravest, fullest life because they're afraid they're gonna get a migraine?"

In fact, 18% of all U.S. women suffer from a migraine attack every year, according to the American Headache Society, and women are three times more likely than men to experience the debilitating attacks.

Often misunderstood as "just a headache," migraines affect 39 million Americans with a host of symptoms, including nausea, numbness, visual disturbances and light and noise sensitivity. The chronic disease is set off by triggers — most frequently lack of sleep, skipped meals, alcohol, stress, weather changes and, among women, hormonal changes — that create hyperactivity in the brain.

In general, the medical community agrees that no single treatment can effectively address the suffering, as Cummings discovered by trial and error over the years. She experienced her first migraine attack as a child growing up in Washington, D.C., and soon became accustomed to adjusting her life around the frequent episodes, which sometimes lasted days.

Her migraine history makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable: By her mid-20s, she had established herself as one of the country's top new stand-up comics. She went on to co-create and executive produce the hit CBS sitcom, 2 Broke Girls, star in her own self-titled NBC sitcom, and write, direct and star in the feature film The Female Brain. Through it all, she still was bending to the will of the pain, sometimes so severe that she ended up in a hospital emergency room for morphine, her only source of relief.

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A breakthrough arrived in her mid-30s when a neurologist identified that her anxiety over getting attacks was actually provoking them. The insight, says Cummings, was a "game changer," and she soon began taking medication to blunt her panic-driven adrenaline surges.

She has since followed medical guidance to develop a multipronged strategy to ward off the attacks. And when she does feel the first trace of migraine symptoms, she has an arsenal at the ready: a caffeine source, cooling menthol gel and two drugs that address oncoming pain. "If you give me two hours," she says, "I can usually nip it in the bud."

In time Cummings has learned about the daily habits that can also make a significant difference, including sticking to a healthy diet, exercising in moderation and following a regular meal and sleep schedule. All of that can be a tall order when she's on the road for her one-woman comedy shows, but she's untroubled by the challenge.

"The most difficult part of my job," she says, "was not being able to do it because I had a migraine."

Ultimately, she says, the lifestyle improvements that she's made because of her attacks have rewarded her in ways far beyond migraine relief.

"In the long run, these migraines might save my life," she says, "because all the things I've cut out to not get migraines are all the things I should cut out, even if I don't get them."

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