Managing Your Chronic Headaches

July 10, 2014

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Chronic headaches can be treated

Handling a classroom full of fourth graders while also trying to teach them math could give a lot of people a headache – but for teacher Janet Winslow, the headaches were full-blown migraines. They were getting worse and they were keeping her from the classroom.

“I’d had migraines occasionally since high school,” she explained. “But over the years they had gotten to the point that I would throw up and couldn’t teach. I even missed two days in a row at one point, and that’s when a friend said I really should see a doctor.”

Migraines were a problem for Galen Roberts, too. He’d started getting headaches when he was about 11 years old, but they intensified after a traumatic brain injury just as he was finishing college. “The migraines were severe and chronic,” he said. “I was getting them more than 15 days each month, which meant I was trying to work through the pain or taking vacation days when I just couldn’t bear it.”

After doctors ruled out other medical conditions that could be causing the headaches, both Winslow and Roberts were referred to Mercy Headache Management in Springfield, Mo. After consulting with Mercy family nurse practitioner Laura Hediger, they began their treatment in the same way: by keeping a journal to pinpoint whether anything in particular was triggering the pain. For some, certain foods can be a problem. For Winslow, the journal showed her headaches popped up when she was overly tired or stressed out. In Galen’s case, it was more complicated.

“Barometric pressure changes trigger my migraines,” he said. “And when you live in Missouri, those are pretty constant. Anytime a cold front came through, I would get a migraine. I really thought I was going to have to move to a different climate.”

Luckily, there were treatment options for both Winslow and Roberts. “We have a multidisciplinary approach at our clinic, so patients have all kinds of options,” said Mercy neurologist Dr. Sombabu Maganti. “Along with a variety of medications, we offer a health psychologist who can help patients with things like relaxation techniques. There’s also lifestyle counseling to help patients eliminate the triggers that contribute to their headaches.”

Winslow began taking preventative migraine medications along with nasal spray. When headaches flare, she has another medication she can take to deal with the pain. “It’s fabulous. I know I have the medicine with me and I can manage a headache. I can make it through the day. No more canceling plans with family and friends – I don’t even worry about a headache knocking me down anymore.”

The headache management team took a different approach with Roberts – prescribing Botox injections along with medications. “Nothing else had worked for me, so I was getting pretty desperate,” he said. “Still, when they said ‘Botox,’ I was confused – I thought that was for people who wanted to look younger. Turns out, 31 tiny injections can do a lot for treating migraines.”

While Roberts still gets about eight migraines a month, he says they’re much less severe and he can manage them with medication. “I’m no longer worried I’m going to have to move away.”

For those who aren’t sure whether their headaches require special treatment, Dr. Maganti says to look at how they’re affecting your life. “A headache shouldn’t become a big headache that limits your ability to function. If you’re at that point, it’s time to see your doctor, who can determine whether you have a chronic condition. If you do, we’re here to help.”

Winslow’s advice is similar. “If my friend hadn’t made me go to the doctor, I would still be suffering – and there’s no need.”

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