An electric stimulation device, gammaCore has received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an acute treatment of pain associated with migraine in adult patients. gammaCore is a hand-held device that stimulates the vagus nerve in the neck through the skin and was developed following and based on my 2005 publication describing the use of implantable vagus nerve stimulator for refractory chronic cluster and migraine headaches. This adds to the approval gammaCore received for the acute treatment of pain associated with episodic cluster headache in adult patients in April 2017. The clearance is limited to pain of migraine, rather than migraine attacks, meaning that the device relieves pain and may not relieve other migraine symptoms, such as nausea and sensitivity to light and noise.

The FDA clearance of gammaCore for the acute treatment of pain associated with migraine was supported by the results of the multicenter, randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial that demonstrated that “treatment with gammaCore for the acute treatment of pain associated with migraine was superior to sham, and also enabled patients to reach pain freedom more frequently by 30, 60, and 120 minutes compared with sham treatment”. Just like with all other studies with gammaCore, the therapy was found to be well tolerated by patients.

gammaCore is also available outside of the U.S., including in Canada and the European Economic Area. The manufacturer offers a free trial of the device, which cannot be purchased, but only rented. Some insurance plans may pay for the rental.

Here are a few disclaimers and warnings from the manufacturer:

The safety and effectiveness of gammaCore (non-invasive vagus nerve stimulator) has not been established in the acute treatment of chronic Cluster Headache.
This device has not been shown to be effective for the prophylactic treatment of chronic or episodic cluster headache.
The long-term effects of the chronic use of the device have not been evaluated.
Safety and efficacy of gammaCore has not been evaluated in the following patients, and therefore is NOT indicated for:
Patients with an active implantable medical device, such as a pacemaker, hearing aid implant, or any implanted electronic device
Patients diagnosed with narrowing of the arteries (carotid atherosclerosis)
Patients who have had surgery to cut the vagus nerve in the neck (cervical vagotomy)
Pediatric patients
Pregnant women
Patients with clinically significant hypertension, hypotension, bradycardia, or tachycardia

Patients should not use gammaCore if they:
Have a metallic device such as a stent, bone plate, or bone screw implanted at or near their neck
Are using another device at the same time (eg, TENS Unit, muscle stimulator) or any portable electronic device (eg, mobile phone)

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A recent article in the New York Times by the health columnist, Jane Brody, Trying the Feldenkrais Method for Chronic Pain, described her very positive experience with the Feldenkrais method. Then, at about the same time a patient told me that Feldenkrais lessons made a big difference in her neck and back pain. I started to read about Feldenkrais (download an article from the Smithsonian Magazine), took a lesson with my patient’s teacher, and then invited this teacher to work in our office.

This method was developed by a Russian-born Israeli engineer Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984). He was a physicist who was educated at Sorbonne and worked with Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then worked in the British survey office and during the war, as a science officer in the Admiralty. In 1936, while in France, he became one of the first Europeans to earn a black belt in judo.

A knee injury led Feldenkrais to develop a movement method named after him. He did not call it therapy and always insisted that he did not treat patients, but rather taught lessons on how to move naturally. At the same time, his lessons often led to a dramatic relief of pain, improved movement and functioning in individuals who suffered from cerebral palsy, strokes, multiple sclerosis, back, and neck pains. He felt that the key to healing was to become aware of what one is doing. Dancers, artists, and athletes have been using Feldenkrais lessons to improve their performance and to heal and avoid injuries. In the early 1950s Feldenkrais worked with the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, whose decades-long chronic back pain dramatically improved. Feldenkrais quit his position as the first director of the electronics department of the Israeli Defense Force and decided to devote all of his time to teaching his movement method. He had trained hundreds of practitioners all around the world and they in turn trained the next generation of teachers.

Feldenkrais emphasizes gentle and often small movements that re-educate and re-establish the connection between the body and the brain. It also makes you do movements that do not come naturally and that we never do, such as turning your head to one side and moving your eyes in the opposite direction. It is difficult to describe this method in words, but even a single lesson can show its dramatic potential. Try this simple exercise. Check the range of movements in your neck – how far can you turn your head to one side, then the other without straining. Then, put palms of your hands on your cheeks and attach your arms to the body. Now, turn your body at the waist from the midline to the left and back to the midline, again only as far as you can comfortably do it. Repeat this 10 times and then 10 times from the midline to the right. Now, put down your arms and test your range of movements again. Most people, including those who have very tight neck muscles, will noticed a significant and a very surprising improvement. Surprising, because it happened without moving your neck. You can watch me doing this exercise on youtube; I also show another exercise that improves the lateral flexion of your neck.

A possible explanation is that our brains get visual cues indicating that our head moved far to one side, but the brain cannot tell if the movement came from turning the torso or the neck. Repeating the move 5-10 times trains our brain to allow such movement even when we only move the neck. This explanation has some scientific support. When vision and proprioception were incongruent, participants were less accurate and initially relied on vision and then proprioception over time.

This explanation has some scientific support. The authors of an article in the Experimental Brain Research, Untangling visual and proprioceptive contributions to hand localisation over time, conclude that “When vision and proprioception were incongruent, participants were less accurate and initially relied on vision and then proprioception over time” (proprioception is our sense of the relative position of our body parts).

Another fascinating phenomenon that provides Feldenkrais method additional scientific support is the observation that when we cross our hands, we feel less pain in the hand. The Journal of Pain published an article “Seeing One’s Own Painful Hand Positioned in the Contralateral Space Reduces Subjective Reports of Pain…” Scientific research using functional MRI images of the brain led to the publication of another article in the same journal: Crossing the line of pain: FMRI correlates of crossed-hands analgesia.

It appears that our visual cues are very important to our ability to move and feel pain and this may be one of the ways the Feldenkrais method improves movement and relieves pain.

Individual lessons can be expensive ($100-$200 an hour), but Feldenkrais is often taught in groups, which makes it more affordable. You can also learn it by reading books, such as Awareness Heals: The Feldenkrais Method For Dynamic Health , audio recordings – The Feldenkrais Lessons: Awareness Through Movement by Bruce Holmes , and youtube videos

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Feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) is one of the oldest herbal remedies for the treatment of migraine headaches. It was first mentioned as a treatment for inflammation 2,000 years ago. Feverfew is a member of the daisy family and all above-ground parts of the plants are safe to ingest and it is usually consumed as dried leaves or tea made of dried flowers. Besides migraine, it has been used for the treatment of fevers, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach aches, toothaches, insect bites, psoriasis, allergies, asthma, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, infertility, problems with menstruation and labor during childbirth.

We do have some scientific evidence for the effectiveness of feverfew in the prevention of migraine headaches. Here is a brief description of two of the five published trials of feverfew.

A study, Randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial of feverfew in migraine prevention was published in the Lancet by British researchers led by JJ Murphy. 60 patients completed this study, in which half of the migraine patients received feverfew and the other half, placebo. After four months the treatment was switched (so called crossover study). Patients in the feverfew group had 4.7 fewer attacks, while placebo resulted in 3.6 fewer attacks. Global assessment of improvement was 74 vs 60. Feverfew also reduced the severity of nausea and vomiting.

Another, more rigorous study by German researchers led by HC Diener was published in Cephalalgia. It was entitled, Efficacy and safety of 6.25 mg t.i.d. feverfew CO2–extract (MIG-99) in migraine prevention – a randomized, double-blind, multicenter, placebo-controlled study.
This study enrolled 170 migraine sufferers with 89 receiving a special extract of feverfew and 81, placebo. The number of migraine attacks dropped by 1.9 in the feverfew group and by 1.3 attacks in the placebo group. The difference in the global assessment of efficacy was also statistically significant.

As far as side effects, mouth sores have been reported and, like with any herbal product, feverfew can cause upset stomach or an allergic reaction.

An issue with feverfew that applies to all herbal products is that every manufacturer processes the plant differently. In some cases, the product contains very little of active ingredients, such as parthenolides. The British researchers in the study cited above grew their own feverfew in the back yard of the hospital. An easier solution is to buy products of companies with good reputation, such as Nature’s Way, Source Naturals, and Oregon’s Wild Harvest.

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Survivors of terrorist attacks are four times more likely to suffer from migraines and three times more likely to suffer from tension-type headaches, according to a study just published in Neurology. The researchers evaluated 213 of 358 adolescent survivors of the 2011 massacre at a summer camp in Norway that resulted in deaths of 69 people. These survivors were compared to over 1,700 adolescents of the same sex and age who were not exposed to terrorism. The survivors were not only much more likely to suffer from migraines and tension-type headaches, but were also much more likely to have daily or weekly attacks.

Many previous studies have shown that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are strong risk factors for the development of migraines and chronic pain in many previous studies. Having a family history of migraines further increases this risk, as does head trauma, and having other painful or psychological disorders. Headache is also one of the first symptoms reported by adolescent girls and women who were raped.

The authors of the current report cite evidence that “Childhood maltreatment during periods of high developmental plasticity seems to trigger modifications in genetic expression, neural circuits, immunologic functioning, and related physiologic stress responses. It is plausible that exposure to interpersonal violence could induce functional, neuroendoimmunologic alterations, affecting central sensitization and pain modulation and perception. Central sensitization, expressed as hypersensitivity to visual, auditory, olfactory, and somatosensory stimuli, has long been thought to play a key role in the pathogenesis and chronification of migraine.”

It is likely that early intervention after a traumatic event will result not only in better psychological outcomes, but also in fewer and milder headaches. One such intervention is cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, there are several different types of such therapy and a study just published in JAMA Psychiatry compared 12 sessions of cognitive processing therapy (CPT) with 5 sessions of written exposure therapy (WET) for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. WET was shown to be at least as good as CPT with fewer treatment sessions required. This makes WET more efficient and affordable and patients are more likely to complete it.

My previous blog posts mention online self-administered courses of cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD, insomnia, chronic pain, and other conditions. The site is and the researchers behind it have published scientific data indicating that their approach is very effective. It is also very inexpensive – some courses are free and some cost about $50.

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Deficiency of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is the second most common deficiency in migraine sufferers after magnesium. Fully one third of migraine sufferers are deficient in CoQ10, according to a study by Dr. Andrew Hershey and his colleagues published in the journal Headache. They tested 1,550 children and adolescents and a study in such a large population tends to be very reliable. Supplementing these children with 1 to 3 mg/kg of CoQ10 produced significant improvement not only in CoQ10 levels but also in the frequency of attacks (from 19 a month to 12) and the disability (the disability score dropped from 47 to 23).

This deficiency is present in adults as well, as was shown in another study by a Swiss neurologist, Dr. Peter Sandor and his colleagues. They gave 100 mg of CoQ10 three times a day or placebo to 42 adult migraine sufferers and discovered that a 50% drop in migraine attack frequency occurred in 48% of patients on CoQ10 and only 14% of patients on placebo.

The Hershey study was done in a more logical way – determine who is deficient and give them CoQ10. If you give CoQ10 to those who need it and those who don’t, the results of the study and in practice will not be as impressive. Although CoQ10 is not expensive ($7 a month for 200 mg a day) and is very safe, why supplement to someone who does not need it? Although the blood test for CoQ10 is fairly expensive ($158 at Labcorp), it is usually covered by most insurance plans. It is important to ask your doctor what the actual blood level was because the laboratories will report as normal values between 0.37 and 2.2 (Labcorp) or 0.44 and 1.64 (Quest Diagnostics), studies have shown that the level should be at least 0.7.

As far as side effects, a few of my patients developed insomnia, possibly because CoQ10 is involved in energy generation, so I always advise taking it in the morning. While Sandor gave his patients 100 mg three times a day, in Hershey’s study the benefit appeared at lower doses. I usually recommend 100 to 200 mg (depending on body weight and how low the level is), to be taken once, in the morning.

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Magnesium deficiency is found in up to 50% of migraine sufferers, 40% of those with cluster headaches, 45% of the elderly diabetics, and in a high percentages of people with other chronic diseases. Magnesium has been shown to relieve migraine and cluster headaches, post-concussion syndrome, lower blood pressure, prevent irregular heart beats, and improve breathing in asthmatics.

A new study by Dutch researchers published in the leading neurology journal, Neurology reports on an association between magnesium and dementia (Alzheimer’s and other types). Brenda Kieboom and her colleagues measured magnesium levels in almost 10,000 people without any evidence of dementia and followed them for an average of 8 years. The average age at the start of the study was 65. Only 2 subjects had magnesium level above normal and 108 below normal.

The surprising discovery, which was suggested by previous contradictory studies, is that people with both low normal and high normal levels (lowest and highest quintile of the normal range) were at an increased risk of developing dementia.

There are two hypotheses as to why low magnesium levels could predispose to dementia. One is that magnesium blocks NMDA receptor, which is involved in the development of dementia, traumatic brain injury, pain, migraines, and other conditions. The second theory is that magnesium deficiency promotes inflammation, which is found in brains of patients with dementia (and migraines). The authors did not offer any theories as to why high normal magnesium levels were also associated with the development of dementia.

The researchers admit several weaknesses of their study, including poor correlation between serum magnesium levels and the total magnesium in the body and the reliance on a single measurement of magnesium level. The study does have many strengths, including large number of subjects, correction for a variety of confounding factors (education, weight, smoking, alcohol, cholesterol, kidney function, stroke, and other). The fact that this correlation was found as early as 4 years after the initial assessment also suggests a real correlation.

Although, correlation does not mean causation, it is prudent to keep your magnesium level in the middle of normal range. We rarely see high or high normal magnesium levels in our migraine patients and in this study only 2 out of almost 10,000 people had higher than normal levels and 108 had lower than normal levels. Ideally, everyone who suffers from any medical condition or has a family history of dementia, should have their magnesium level checked. The more accurate test is not the serum level, but the RBC magnesium level.

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A new report by doctors at UC Irvine describes successful treatment of 9 children aged 8 to 17 with migraine headaches using Botox injections. It may sound surprising, but unfortunately children also suffer from chronic migraines. Chronic migraine is defined as headaches that occur on 15 or more days each month and on at least 8 of those days headaches have migraine features. In children with episodic and chronic migraines, migraine features, such as throbbing, unilateral location, sensitivity to light and noise are less common than in adults.

There are only 5 treatments that are approved by the FDA for the prevention of migraine attacks. Four are drugs – 2 blood pressure medications, propranolol (Inderal) and timolol (Blocadren) and 2 epilepsy drugs, topiramate (Topamax) and divalproex sodium (Depakote). The fifth treatment is Botox injections. While Botox is not approved for kids with migraines, it is approved to treat eye conditions in children 12 years of age and older. Botox is also widely used to treat younger children with cerebral palsy (CP), although there is no official FDA clearance for such use. For a child with CP, Botox injections can make a difference between being wheelchair-bound and walking unassisted. However, very young children with CP are at the highest risk of serious complications and even death because they have small bodies and very stiff muscles, which require relatively large doses of Botox.

The dose to treat migraines is much smaller and therefore a lot safer. My youngest child with chronic migraines was a boy of 8 who weighed 50 lbs. He had excellent relief of his migraines after receiving 15 units of Botox into his forehead. He underwent a total of five treatments over a period of two years and for the last treatment, I gave him 50 units (forehead and temples). By then his weight was 65 lbs. The standard adult dose for migraines is 155 units. The dose for cerebral palsy in an adult goes up to 400 units.

The main difficulty in using Botox in children with migraines is that insurance companies often deny coverage, which they justify by the lack of FDA approval. However, Botox injections at low doses used to treat migraines in children are safer than drugs for epilepsy, high blood pressure, or depression.

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A group of highly respected researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine just published their second article in the journal Headache on the cardiovascular disease (CVD) risks in migraine sufferers. Not surprisingly, they have found that there is an increase in the CVD risk factors with increasing age – more people develop diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, get stenting and other heart procedures as they get older.

This study concludes that, “Among people with episodic migraine in the US population, the number of women and men with relative contraindications to triptans… includes over 900,000 women and men. This includes more than half a million individuals with episodic migraine who have not had a prior cardiovascular events or procedures.” They also extensively refer to the FDA-approved label for triptans, which says that “It is strongly recommended that sumatriptan not be given to patients in whom unrecognized coronary artery disease is predicted by the presence of risk factors…”. This is because triptans can slightly constrict blood vessels, especially diseased ones (but vasoconstriction is not how triptans relieve migraines).

This is a strange conclusion considering that in the first article devoted to this large and extensive study they admit that “Serious cardiac events following triptan administration are very rare and in claims analysis, triptan use is indeed not associated with increased risk of CVD”. And the triptan label includes this statement (mentioned by the authors): “Considering the extent of use of sumatriptan in patients with migraine, the incidence of these events (drug-associated cardiac events and fatalities) is extremely low.”

The first study reported that there is a decline in the use of triptans in patients with CVD risk factors. The authors note that “It is our impression that this finding reflects a “fear-factor”; doctors may fear the onset of CV events in individuals with migraine and patients may fear the triptan label. Therefore, migraineurs that could theoretically benefit from triptans do not receive them. Nonetheless, it must be emphasized once more that triptans are not associated with the migraine/CVD relationship in populational studies; that no evidence exists to suggest increased risk of CVD in individuals with specific risk factors; and that triptans are not contraindicated in individuals without CVD but with risk factors for it.”

In the second study they inexplicably change their tune and say that “Nonvasoconstrictive acute treatments for migraine may be particularly valuable in persons of both sexes, especially men over the age of 40 and women over the age of 60. In addition, as the population ages, migraine treatments that do not constrict blood vessels may play an increasingly important role.”

What “nonvasoconstrictive acute treatments”? NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen? Regular intake of NSAIDs, unlike that of triptans, is proven to increase the risk of CVD. Narcotics? They do not work well for most migraine sufferers and fuel the addiction epidemic. Butalbital/caffeine combination? It does not help most migraine sufferers (and was never approved for migraines) and, unlike triptans, cause medication overuse headaches.

Fortunately, patients with severe coronary artery disease and other strong contraindications for the use of triptans will soon have a safe option in a new category of migraine drugs, CGRP antagonists. They do not have any effect on blood vessels and will not have a warning label about their use in patients with CVD risk factors. However, these are very new drugs and we do not have long-term safety data that we have for triptans. Triptans have been in use for over 25 years and are sold without a prescription in most European countries.

The first group of these CGRP drugs, which will be released next year, will be given by injection for the prevention of migraines. In about 2-3 years we also hope to have CGRP drugs in a tablet form for the treatment of acute attacks. These will be expensive drugs, but their development has cost billions of dollars, so I have no quarrel with that (but insurance companies will). However, even if price was not an issue, a triptan would still be my first choice for most patients.

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Two landmark studies on an entirely new type of treatment for migraines have been just published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

One of the reports describes a phase 3 trial (final phase that can lead to the FDA approval), which was conducted by Teva Pharmaceuticals using a monoclonal antibody, fremanezumab to treat patients with chronic migraine (patients with 15 or more headache days each month). The study involved 1,130 patients who were divided into three groups: one group received monthly injections (subcutaneously, i.e. under the skin) of the active medicine, another group was given an injection of the real medicine every 3 months and placebo injections monthly in between, and the third group received placebo injections every month. Patients in both groups that received real shots did much better than those given placebo. They had fewer days with headaches, used less of the abortive migraine medications, and had a lower impact of migraines on their lives. The effect of the drug lasted 3 months, which suggests that one injection every three months will be sufficient. We also hope that patients will be able to inject themselves and not have to come to doctors’ offices every month. The side effects were mostly related to the injection itself – pain, swelling, and bruising.

The second study conducted by Amgen and Novartis utilized a similar drug, erenumab (it will have the brand name of Aimovig when it becomes available in the middle of next year) to prevent episodic migraines, that is migraines that occur on fewer than 15 headache days each month. A total of 955 patients participated in this study and they were also divided into three groups: those receiving either 70 or 140 mg of medicine and a group receiving placebo. Injections were given monthly to prevent migraine attacks. Both doses of the drug resulted in significantly fewer migraine attacks and improvement in physical impairment and everyday activities. Side effects were mostly due to the injection site reactions, just like with fremanezumab.

Both fremanezumab and erenumab belong to the family of CGRP monoclonal antibodies, drugs that block a neurotransmitter CGRP which is released during a migraine attack. Two additional companies, Eli Lilly and Alder are developing similar drugs, galcanezumab and eptinezumab, which are also expected to be approved next year. Eli Lilly’s drug is also being tested for the prevention of episodic cluster headaches.

I first wrote about the CGRP drugs in a blog post in 2007, more than 10 years ago. At that point CGRP was the target of research for over 10 years, so in total, it will have taken 20 years to bring these new drugs to the market. It was even longer with triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex) – it took 30 years since the discovery of the potential role of serotonin to the approval of sumatriptan. The drug development process takes not only decades of time, but also billions of dollars, which explains why new drugs are so expensive, at least in the first few years. After years of being on the market, prices of drugs tend to go down and now 90 tablets of sumatriptan can be bought for $70 at Costco, while similar branded triptan drugs used to cost $40 for a single tablet.

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Excessive consumption of marijuana can lead to bouts of severe nausea and vomiting, which in medicalese is called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). With many states legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, there has been an increase in ER visits and admissions to the hospital for severe vomiting. This is often misdiagnosed as cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS), a condition which is more common in children than adults and is related to migraines. CVS, which is mentioned in a previous post, is often relieved by sumatriptan (Imitrex).

Unfortunately, people who overindulge in pot, do not realize that it is responsible for their symptoms and end up undergoing endoscopies, MRI scans and other procedures. Taking a hot shower is known to relieve pot-related vomiting, but hot shower also works for some patients with CVS, so this does not help in differentiating the two conditions. German researchers tried to find a reliable way to differentiate CHS and CVS and concluded that the only way to tell these apart is to completely stop marijuana. They do note that CHS can develop after years of using marijuana and that after marijuana use is stopped, it may take several days and up to a couple of months for symptoms to subside.

So far, we’ve prescribed medical marijuana to a couple of hundred patients with headaches, migraines, and nerve pain and have not seen such a problem. It is possible that the amount used for medicinal purposes is too small to cause CHS. The cost of medical marijuana is relatively high and could be preventing its overuse.

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Psychological factors play a major role in migraines. This is not to say that migraine is a psychological disorder – we have good genetic and brain imaging studies confirming its strong biological underpinnings. The divide between biological and psychological is very artificial since we know that physical illness leads to psychological problems and the other way around. Stress is obviously one of the major triggers of migraines and we know that people with migraines are at least twice as likely to develop anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders. These are not cause-and-effect relationships because anxiety and depression can precede the onset of migraines. The connection is probably due to shared underlying problems with serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters.

We have strong evidence that addressing psychological factors involved in migraines through biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive therapy can lead to the reduction of migraine frequency, severity, and disability. Studies in chronic pain patients have shown that people with external locus of control (thinking that uncontrollable outside chance events are major contributors to pain) have more disability than people with internal locus of control (those who feel that their actions are contributing to pain and that active involvement in treatment can relieve pain).

Chronic migraine sufferers (defined as those with 15 or more headache days each month) are known to have greater disability than those with episodic migraines. In a recent study by researchers at the Yeshiva University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 90 chronic migraine patients were evaluated for psychological symptoms. Of these 90 patients, 85% were women, their mean age was 45, and half reported severe migraine-related disability. They were twice as likely to be depressed and to have external locus of control. The half with severe migraine-related disability were 3.5 times more likely to have anxiety and depression and were twice as likely to have a symptom described as catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is defined as having irrational thoughts about pain being uncontrollable, leading to disability, loss of a job, partner, ruined life, etc.

The good news is that many studies show that with cognitive therapy locus of control can be shifted from external to internal, catastrophizing can be reduced or eliminated, and disability diminished. This may not eliminate migraines or chronic pain, but can make you less anxious and depressed, and much more functional. Cost and access to therapy can be a problem, but studies suggest that even online therapy can be very effective.

Besides psychological approaches, regular aerobic exercise (stationary bike is easiest for migraine sufferers), certain supplements and prescription drugs can also help. Supplements that can relieve anxiety and depression include SAMe, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), methylfolate, and other. Some antidepressant medications relieve not only anxiety and depression, but also provide relief of migraines even when psychological factors are absent. These include so called SNRIs (duloxetine or Cymbalta, venlafaxin, or Effexor, and other) and tricyclics (amitriptyline, or Elavil, protriptyline, or Vivactil, and other). The most popular group of antidepressants, the SSRIs (fluoxetine, or Prozac, escitalopram, or Lexapro, and other) do help anxiety and depression, but have no pain or headache-relieving properties. Obviously, all drugs have potential side effects and for most patients it makes sense to try non-drug treatments first.

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People who have experienced “visual snow” know what it means. Their vision tends to be distorted by white spots that resemble what you see on the television when there is no signal.

At the latest meeting of the International Headache Society, the topic of visual snow was addressed in four presentations. The first presentation by British and Swiss researchers attempted to give a definition, so that this phenomenon can be studied scientifically. They collected data on 636 subjects by using an online survey of patients. 636 is a surprisingly high number because this is thought to be a relatively uncommon symptom. I certainly do not see more than a handful of patients each year. They found this phenomenon to be present with equal frequency in men and women and 39% reported to have it all their lives. The majority (56%) saw black and white static, 44% saw colored spots, while 45% experienced flashing, and 52% described it as transparent. The most common non-visual symptom was tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, which was present in 74%. Only 226 patients gave information on headaches and 83% of them suffered at least one attack of migraine. They concluded that visual snow is an unrecognized symptom, which can be very disabling and which deserves further research.

The second presentation reported on 90 patients of the original 636 who agreed to keep a diary of their symptoms for 30 days. The results showed that the visual snow was least noticeable outdoors, in bright sun. It was most pronounced at night. The amount of distraction that was caused by visual snow was correlated to the size and density of the static.

The third study by German and Swiss doctors showed that visual snow is a phenomenon that is common in migraine sufferers, but it is distinct in its character. They came to this conclusion by testing the excitability of the visual cortex of the brain.

The fourth paper described the effectiveness of various treatments. The data was collected by reviewing questionnaires that were returned by 204 patients. The effect of 112 drugs was reported. Unfortunately, less than half (92) of the responders had any relief from medications. Antidepressants and anti-epilepsy drugs were most commonly used. Only 29% improved from benzodiazepine drugs (Valium or diazepam, Klonopin or clonazepam, and other). Recreational drug use was reported 117 times and in 32% produced worsening and in 61% there was no change.

We clearly do not know how to treat this condition, but if you have it, have your doctor check your RBC magnesium level since magnesium deficiency increases the excitability of the nervous system. I would also check vitamin B12, D, and CoQ10 levels, thyroid function, and routine blood tests, looking for an underlying medical condition (for example, anemia) which can worsen many symptoms. Regular and sufficient amounts of sleep, exercise and meditation can also reduce the excitability of nervous system.

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Curcumin, which is one of the ingredients in turmeric, has long been touted for many of its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. A study presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that curcumin improves memory in healthy adults without Alzheimer’s disease.

This double-blind study was performerd by Dr. Gary Small and his colleagues at UCLA and it involved 40 men and women with a mean age of 63. Half of these subjects received 90 mg of Theracurmin brand of cucurmin twice a day, while the other half was given placebo for a period of 18 months. Researchers administered both verbal and visual memory tests and also measured brain deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles using special imaging methods (PET scans). These deposits are found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s.

The scores for both types of memory improved in the curcumin group, but not in the placebo group. Curcumin also prevented buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brains. Daily curcumin also improved attention and mood.

Four patients in the curcumin group and two in the placebo group had stomach pains and nausea. These were the only side effects.

The authors concluded that “This relatively inexpensive and nontoxic treatment may have a potential for not only improving age-related memory decline, but also as a prevention therapy, possibly staving off progression, and eventually future symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.”

There is less clinical evidence for the use of curcumin for the prevention of migraines. A recent study, published in the journal Immunogenetics, Iranian researchers reported that a combination of omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin reduced the production of TNF. TNF is a protein that is involved in sending messages between cells, which leads to increased excitability of neurons, neuroinflammation, and pain. The study involved 74 patients with migraines, who were divided into 4 groups – placebo, curcuming, omega-3, and combination of omega-3 and curcumin. The combination produced not only a reduction in TNF levels, but also fewer migraine attacks than seen in the other 3 groups.

Curcumin is not very well absorbed and several companies have tried to improve its absorption using various methods. The UCLA study utilized Theracurmin, which is an ingredient in several brands of curcumin. Another type, Longvida also seems to be better absorbed and is also used by several manufacturers.

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Ketamine is a medicine that is sometimes given intravenously for anesthesia. It is a controlled drug because it can induce euphoria and is potentially addictive. In a previous post I mentioned several anecdotal reports about the beneifical effect of ketamine for a prolonged migraine aura, hemiplegic migraine and other types of headaches.

A presentation at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists described the results of ketamine infusion on severe migraines in patients admitted to the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia from 2014 to 2016. 48 of the 61 patients (77%) responded to this treatment, meaning that their pain levels improved by at least 2 points on a 1 to 10 scale. On average, the infusion had to be given for 5 days. Side effects included sedation (51%), blurry vision (38%), nausea or vomiting (38%), hallucinations (28%), vivid dreams (13%), and low blood pressure (5%). The authors described the adverse effects as mild in nature and only 1 patient discontinued treatment. However, having hallucinations, drop in blood pressure or vomiting does no sound like mild side effects to me. On the other hand, these were patients whose migraine did not respond to other treatments and they needed to be hospitalized, so these side effects could in fact be acceptable if the treatment ultimately provides relief.

Review of patient records admitted to the same hospital between 2006 and 2014 showed the mean headache pain rating using a 0-10 pain scale dropped from 7 on admission to 4 on discharge. The majority (55 out of 77, or 71%) of patients responded by the same definition of an at least 2-point improvement in headache pain at discharge. Only a quarter of responders maintained this benefit at their follow-up office visit. The mean length of infusion was also 5 days. And again, most patients tolerated ketamine well with “very few serious side effects”.

Anecdotal evidence also exists for the use of ketamine infusions to treat depression. There are some outpatient clinics that offer ketamine infusions for chronic pain and depression and a few of my patients have gone there, but unfortunately with little success.

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There is little doubt that stem cells, along with genetics and computer science will revolutionize medicine. There are more than a dozen journals devoted to stem cell research and many general and speciality medical journals also publish research on stem cells, which means that a couple of hundred articles are published every month. At first, the research was stymied by the controversy about the fetal sources of stem cells. For the most part this problem has been circumvented by the discovery of other sources, such as umbilical cord, placenta, fat tissue, and other.

In neurology, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and strokes have been the main targets of stem cell research. The latest study of stem cells for stroke victims conducted at Stanford by Gary Steinberg and his colleagues produced very encouraging results. This trial included only 18 patients, but they all had their stroke anywhere between 6 months and 3 years before the study – past the usual time where further recovery is expected. Improvement occurred in the majority of patients and the improvement was not affected by the age of the patient or the severity of the stroke. Although stem cells were injected directly into the brain through a small hole that was drilled in the skull, there were no serious complications or side effects. The researchers also noted that stem cells did not replace damaged cells but rather stimulated patients’ own repair mechanisms. This is at odds with the original idea that stem cells by their nature could turn into nerve cells or any other cells in the body to replaced damaged cells.

This stimulating (and anti-inflammatory) effect of stem cells was our reason for conducting a small pilot study of stem cells in patients with refractory chronic migraines, which was described in a previous post. We did not inject cells into the brain, but into the muscles around the head and neck. Three out of 9 patients showed some improvement. We used patients’ own cells extracted from their fat tissue, while the stroke study used cells derived from the bone marrow of a donor. The future of stem cell research clearly lies in the use of such off-the-shelf cells, which have been shown to be safe and are probably more effective than fat-derived cells.

Stem cell lines are being developed to treat different medical conditions – Asterias for spinal cord injury, Pluristem for radiation damage, and many other.

The same team of researchers and SanBio, Inc. the Japanese company that developed these stem cells are conducting another larger controlled trial. You can email for information about participating in this trial.

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Chronic pain is known to alter the structure of the brain. Mayo Clinic researchers used MRI scans to examine brains of 29 patients with post-traumatic headaches and compared their scans to those of 31 age-matched healthy volunteers. The average frequency of headaches was 22 days a month. Patients with post-traumatic headaches were found to have thinning of several areas of their cerebral cortex which are responsible for pain processing in the frontal lobes. Cortex covers the surface of the brain and contains bodies of brain neurons. Drs. Chiang, Schwedt, and Chong, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the International Headache Society held last month in Vancouver, also discovered that the thinning was correlated with the frequency of headaches.

This study did not address possible treatments, but it would make sense that with better control of headaches, this brain atrophy might be reversible. To treat post-traumatic headaches we often use Botox injections, which have been shown to help posttraumatic headaches. Even though Botox is approved only for chronic migraines, many patients with post-traumatic headaches do have symptoms of migraines and can be diagnosed as having post-traumatic chronic migraines (without such a designation insurance companies may not pay for Botox). We also check RBC magnesium, CoQ10 and other vitamin levels, which are often low in chronic headache sufferers and if corrected, can lead to a significant improvement. Epilepsy drugs and anti-depressants can also help.

While the above mentioned treatments can help headaches and potentially could reverse brain atrophy, there is only one intervention that has been shown to increase the thickness of the brain cortex on the MRI scan. This intervention is meditation. And this effect was demonstrated in several studies. An 8-week course of mindfulness-based stress reduction led to a measurable increase in the gray matter concentration of certain parts of the brain cortex. A pilot study of migraine sufferers showed that meditation has a potential not only to restore thickness of the brain, but also to relieve migraines.

In one of my previous blog posts that described a sceintific study of meditation, I mentioned several ways to learn meditation: Free podcasts by a psychologist Tara Brach an excellent book, Mindfulness in Plain English by B. Gunaratana, and several apps – Headspace, 10% Happier, and Calm. You can also take an individual or a group class, which are widely available.

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Biome, or the collection of bacteria living in our bodies has been receiving belated and well deserved attention. The discovery that bacteria living in our intestines can cause cerebral cavernous malformations or CCM (see photo) is quite dramatic. But there is no need to panic since this is a rare condition. However, it does indicate that gut bacteria can have a major impact on our brains.

It was a serendipitous discovery by Dr. Mark Kahn, professor of medicine at U. Penn, who studied mice with CCM. He noticed that mutant mice prone to CCM stopped developing holes in their brains after being moved to a new building. The exception was mice who developed an abscess after having their intestines accidentally stuck with a needle during a routine injection. Dr. Kahn and his colleagues identified a specific bacterium, Bacteroides fragilis, which was responsible for the development of brain caverns.

This finding may explain why there is such a wide variety of presentations in people who have the familial form of CCM. Some have no lesions even when they are 70, while others have hundreds of them at age 10. Just like mutant mice, humans seem to need an additional trigger to start developing CCMs. This finding provides a clear path to developing an effective treatment and perhaps, just a simple probiotic could keep such patients healthy.

In fact, a probiotic containing 14 different strains of bacteria (Bio-Kult, made in UK) is effective in preventing migraine headaches, according to a study presented by Iranian doctors at the recent International Headache Congress in Vancouver. Fifty patients were recruited into this study with half taking the probiotic and the other half, placebo. After 8 weeks, patients on the probiotic had fewer days with migraine and the pain was milder when compared to those taking placebo.

The big question is, what other brain disorders are triggered or worsened by our gut bacteria. We have more bacterial cells living in our bodies (about 39 trillion) than we have of our own cells (about 30 trillion) and scientists are finally beginning to study them. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, is a fascinating and well-written book by Ed Yong on this subject.

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A new study by Swiss researchers compared the effect of high intensity interval training (HIT) with moderate intensity continuous training (MCT) and with no exercise at all on the number of migraine headache days.

The results were presented at the International Headache Congress held in Vancouver last month. Not surprisingly, both types of exercise reduced the number of migraine headache days, but HIT was more effective. In the study, patients in HIT group did 4 periods of intensive exercise (90% of maximum intensity) each lasting 4 minutes, separated by periods of 3 minutes at 70% of maximum. The moderate intensity exercise was done at 70% for 45 minutes. Both groups performed these exercise twice a week.

A previous study has established that exercising for 40 minutes 3 times a week is as effective as relaxation training or taking a preventive migraine drug topiramate. Topiramate however has many potential side effects, including some serious ones. A Swedish study of 46,648 people established a strong inverse correlation between physical activity and the frequency of headaches.

HIT has been gaining in popularity since the 1980’s because it provides all of the benefits of exercise in a shorter period of time.

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Botox is the most effective and the safest preventive treatment for migraine headaches. However, in a very small number of patients, Botox loses its effectiveness over time. This happens for two main reasons – the person develops antibodies as a defense mechanism to block the effect of Botox or headaches change in character and stop responding to Botox.

It is easy to tell these two reasons apart. If Botox fails to stop movement of the forehead muscles and the patient can frown and raise her eyebrows, it is most likely because of antibodies. On a very rare occasion this is due to a defective vial of Botox, so to confirm that antibodies have formed, we give a small test dose amount of Botox into the forehead. If again there is no paralysis, we know that antibodies have developed. This can happen after one or two treatments or after 10, but in my experience over the past 25 years, significantly fewer than 1% of patients develop this problem.

Fortunately, some patients who develop antibodies to Botox, known as type A toxin, may respond to a similar product Myobloc, which is a type B toxin. Myobloc is not approved by the FDA to treat chronic migraine headaches, but it has a similar mechanism of action and has been shown to relieve migraines in several studies. Injections of Myobloc can be a little more painful, it begins to work a little faster than Botox, but the effect may last for a slightly shorter period of time.

An even smaller number of patients have naturally occurring antibodies to Botox, which is most likely due to an exposure to botulinum toxin in food. I’ve encountered 4 or 5 such patients and a couple of them who did go on to try Myobloc, did not respond to it either.

When Botox stops working despite providing good muscle relaxing effect, it could be because the headaches have changed in character, severity or are being caused by a new problem. It could be due a sudden increase in stress level, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, drop in magnesium level due to a gastro-intestinal problem, or another new illness, such as thyroid disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or increased pressure in the brain. Such patients need to be re-evaluated with a neurological examination, blood tests, and usually an MRI scan. One of my patients who was doing well on Botox for several years, did not have any relief from her last regular treatment. Since she had no obvious reasons why her migraines should stop responding to Botox, I ordered an MRI scan. Unfortunately, she turned out to have brain metastases from breast cancer which had not yet been diagnosed.

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Bright light bothers many migraine sufferers and in some, a flash of bright light, such as sun reflecting off a window glass or water can instantly trigger a severe migraine. Sensitivity to light may be color dependent, according to a presentation by Japanese researchers at the International Headache Congress held in Vancouver earlier this month.

Dr. K. Niwa and his colleagues in Tokyo studied 936 patients with chronic headaches aged between 12 and 77. They compared 546 patients with episodic and chronic migraines with 392 patients with episodic and chronic tension-type, cluster, new daily persistent and other types of headaches. They exposed these patients to yellow, white, gray, blue green, and red ambient light. They measured the degree of discomfort on a 6-point scale, ranging from none to unbearable.

White, blue, and red lights aggravated discomfort both during a migraine attack and between attacks. Green light reduced discomfort between attacks of migraine and reduced pain intensity during a migraine, regardless of the presence or absence of light sensitivity. This was true for patients with both episodic and chronic migraine headaches. Those with chronic tension-type headaches had only mild discomfort from white light, while patients with all other types of headaches had no positive or negative reaction to various colors of ambient light.

This study confirmed previous reports (and our patients’ experience) that blue and white light worsens migraine pain. The more important finding is that green light seems to be very beneficial. Considering the low cost of this treatment, migraine sufferers, especially those with light sensitivity, may want to buy a green light bulb or sunglasses with green lenses. Some of our patients have a preference for different colors, including bright orange, which eliminates blue light. One of my previous blog posts mentioned research looking at individualizing color selection of eyeglass lenses. This customized service is not yet available and is likely to be expensive. However, several companies sell glasses with FL-41 tint that is specifically designed for migraine patients. Theraspecs is one and Axonoptics is another. The Fl-41 tint can also be applied to any lens.

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Caffeine and opioid (narcotic) drugs, if taken regularly, are proven to worsen headaches. This will not come as a surprise to anyone drinking large amounts of coffee – skipping your morning cup will leave you with a headache. Taking too much Excedrin, Fioricet, or Percocet will also make you want to take these drugs more and more often and with diminishing relief. However, most neurologists and headache specialists believe that triptans (sumatriptan, rizatriptan, et al.) and NSAIDs (naproxen, ibuprofen, et al.) can also cause “medication overuse headaches”. This remains a belief, rather than a scientific fact and it leads to thousands of headache sufferers being unfairly accused of causing or worsening their own headaches. They are being denied a safe and effective treatment that could relieve their suffering and reduce disability. My most popular blog post that so far has elicited 247 comments, is one on the daily use of triptans.

Drs. Ann Scher of Uniformed Services University, Paul Rizzoli and Elizabeth Loder of Brigham and Women’s Hospital have just published an article in a leading neurology journal, Neurology, entitled, Medication overuse headache. An entrenched idea in need of scrutiny. Last year I described a debate on this topic between Dr. Scher and Dr. Richard Lipton of the Montefiore Headache Clinic at the meeting of the American Headache Society. The abstract of this new article can be easily understood by the lay public, so I am including its full text.

“It is a widely accepted idea that medications taken to relieve acute headache pain can paradoxically worsen headache if used too often. This type of secondary headache is referred to as medication overuse headache (MOH); previously used terms include rebound headache and drug-induced headache. In the absence of consensus about the duration of use, amount, and type of medication needed to cause MOH, the default position is conservative. A common recommendation is to limit treatment to no more than 10 or 15 days per month (depending on medication type) to prevent headache frequency progression. Medication withdrawal is often recommended as a first step in treatment of patients with very frequent headaches. Existing evidence, however, does not provide a strong basis for such causal claims about the relationship between medication use and frequent headache. Observational studies linking treatment patterns with headache frequency are by their nature confounded by indication. Medication withdrawal studies have mostly been uncontrolled and often have high dropout rates. Evaluation of this evidence suggests that only a minority of patients required to limit the use of symptomatic medication may benefit from treatment limitation. Similarly, only a minority of patients deemed to be overusing medications may benefit from withdrawal. These findings raise serious questions about the value of withholding or withdrawing symptom-relieving medications from people with frequent headaches solely to prevent or treat MOH. The benefits of doing so are smaller, and the harms larger, than currently recognized. The concept of MOH should be viewed with more skepticism. Until the evidence is better, we should avoid dogmatism about the use of symptomatic medication. Frequent use of symptom-relieving headache medications should be viewed more neutrally, as an indicator of poorly controlled headaches, and not invariably a cause.”

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Sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt) and the other 5 triptans work on serotonin receptors to stop a migraine attack. Many antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), escitalopram (Lexapro), that belong to the SSRI family and venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta), that belong to the SNRI family of drugs also affect serotonin or its receptors. Because both triptans and antidepressants affect serotonin, it is understandable that there has been concern about the potential for serotonin-related side effects when these drugs are used together.

In 2006 the FDA released a warning, “Potentially Life-Threatening Serotonin Syndrome With Combined Use of SSRIs or SNRIs and Triptan Medications.” Fortunately, this is the case of “fake news”. My colleague in Houston, Dr. Randy Evans under the Freedom of Information Act, requested all the data that the FDA used to issue this warning. He published an article on his findings and concluded that “The data do not support prohibiting the use of triptans with SSRIs or SNRIs.”

A new study presented at the 59th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society confirmed Dr. Evans’ conclusion. Dr. Yulia Orlova and her colleagues at the John R. Graham Headache Center at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston conducted a population-based study using information on more than 6.5 million patients. Over a 14-year period, about 19,000 were prescribed both triptans and SSRI or SNRI antidepressants. Between 4 and 7 patients (0.02% to 0.04%) developed serotonin syndrome.

In most cases serotonin syndrome is mild and consists of shivering, sweating, and diarrhea. Only very rarely it can be life-threatening with high body temperature, agitation, and seizures.

This is an important issue because migraine is 2-3 times more common in those suffering from depression and anxiety, while depression and anxiety are 2-3 times more common in people with migraines. This means that millions of people suffer from both conditions. Most experts agree that combining SSRIs and SNRIs with triptans is very safe.

A similar issue is the prohibition on mixing different triptans within 24 hours. There is not a slightest shred of clinical or scientific evidence for this contraindication. Nevertheless, the FDA-approved label has this warning for every triptan.

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Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago examined possible correlation between magnesium level on admission to the hospital with the size of a stroke due to bleeding as well as functional outcomes. Their findings were published in Neurology.

290 patients presenting with a non-traumatic intracranial hemorrhage had their demographic, clinical, laboratory, radiographic, and outcome data analyzed and assessed for associations between serum magnesium levels and initial hematoma volume, final hematoma volume, in-hospital hematoma growth, and functional outcome at 3 months.

Lower admission magnesium levels were associated with larger initial bleeds and larger final hematoma volumes. Lower admission magnesium level was associated with worse functional outcomes at 3 months after adjustment for age, initial hematoma volume, hematoma growth, and other factors. The evidence indicates that the beneficial effect of magnesium is due to the reduction in hematoma growth.

The authors concluded that having higher magnesium level can reduce the size of a bleed in the brain.

Unfortunately, magnesium is not a part of the routine blood tests included in the so-called comprehensive metabolic panel. This panel does include potassium, sodium, calcium and other tests, but magnesium needs to be ordered by the doctor separately. Very few doctors do and this can be detrimental to your health. Not only strokes are bigger, but many other much more common health problem can stem from magnesium deficiency. Readers of this blog know well that magnesium deficiency is very common in migraine patients and that taking magnesium (or getting an intravenous infusion) can provide dramatic relief.

Magnesium also helps asthma, palpitations, muscle cramps, PMS, brain fog, and many other symptoms. The next time you have any kind of a blood test, ask your doctor to add a magnesium test, preferably “RBC magnesium”, which is more accurate than “serum magnesium”. If you have any of the above symptoms, you can just start taking 350-400 mg of magnesium glycinate, which is the daily recommended allowance for magnesium.

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Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) which are found in fish oil, have been studied in a wide variety of diseases, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to Herpes Zoster (shingles). Omega-3 PUFA have proven anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties and have been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, as well as migraine headaches.

A new study just published in Neurology showed a strong beneficial effect of Omega-3 PUFA in the treatment of diabetic nerve damage, or diabetic sensorimotor polyneuropathy in patients with type 1 diabetes. After one year of taking 750 mg of EPA and 560 mg of DHA (two of the main omega-3 fatty acids) there was a significant improvement in the nerve function.

Omega-3 PUFA are proven to help patients with coronary artery disease, while in many other conditions, including migraines, the evidence is not as strong. However, considering that we have a very large amount of data showing a benefit in a wide variety of conditions and that Omega-3 PUFA are very safe and inexpensive, it is reasonable to try EPA with DHA for any auto-immune or inflammatory condition, as well as depression.

Eating fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines 2-3 times a week can be sufficient for general health, but those with coronary artery disease and other conditions could benefit from a daily supplement. Also, fish often contains mercury, which can cause neurological and other problems. Omax3 and prescription fish oil, Lovaza are my preferred products because they contain no mercury and are highly concentrated, requiring only 1 or 2 pills a day.

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Sleep disturbances and fatigue are more common in patients with chronic migraine headaches than in people without migraines. Sometimes it is not clear what came first, migraines or the sleep problem with secondary fatigue.

A multicenter study performed in Australia, South Korea, and the US examined the effect of Botox injections given for chronic migraines on sleep and fatigue. This was a 108-week study of 715 adult patients who received Botox injections every 12 weeks. Their sleep quality was assessed by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and fatigue was measured by the Fatigue Severity Scale, both standard and proven measures of sleep and fatigue.

The authors presented their findings at the American Headache Society meeting held two months ago in Boston. While sleep quality was poor before injections were started, significant improvement was noted 24 weeks later and the improvement persisted for the rest of the study. The same was true for fatigue. These findings suggest that sleep difficulty and fatigue are more often the result of chronic migraine, rather than the other way around.

This does not mean that sleep issues should not be addressed while chronic migraine is being treated. Patients are advised to adhere to sleep hygiene, which consists of going to sleep and getting up at the same time, not reading or looking at any screens in bed, sleeping in a cool and quiet environment, exercising and eating at least 2 hours before bedtime, and avoiding caffeine after 1 PM. Regular practice of progressive relaxation and meditation can be very effective for sleep, migraines, and stress. Natural supplements for sleep, such as melatonin and valerian root are also worth trying.

As far as fatigue, we always check vitamin B12 levels, along with vitamin D, RBC magnesium, thyroid, and other blood tests.

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Anxiety is at least twice as common in both children and adults with migraine headaches compared to people without migraines. A new study presented at the recent American Headache Society meeting examined the impact of anxiety on functioning in pediatric migraine population. The researchers analyzed records of 530 kids with migraine and 371 with tension-type headache seen in the pediatric neurology clinic of the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Lebel and her colleagues discovered that physiological anxiety was associated with more severe functional disability in kids with both migraines and tension-type headaches. Physiological anxiety often manifests itself by sleep difficulties, racing heart, shortness of breath, feeling shaky, fatigue, and other. The other two types of anxiety, worry and social anxiety did not seem to lead to more disability.

This study confirms the importance of cognitive and behavioral treatments, such as progressive relaxation, biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive therapy. Kids are very good at these techniques and they are particularly receptive to smartphone-based apps. For meditation, I recommend 10% Happier and Headspace. offers free podcasts for meditation and provides very inexpensive and scientifically proven cognitive-behavioral therapy.

At the NY Headache Center we always try to avoid drugs, especially in children. In addition to cognitive and behavioral techniques, we address sleep, exercise, diet and supplements such as magnesium, CoQ10, and other. If medication is needed, this study suggests that a beta blocker, such as propranolol (Inderal) may be a good choice because in addition to preventing migraines, it reduces physiological symptoms of anxiety (it is also used for performance anxiety). Potential side effects of beta blockers are mostly due to its pressure lowering effect and include fatigue, dizziness, and lightheadedness.

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Most children who complain of headaches report pain in the forehead and/or temples. Doctors and parents tend to get more alarmed when a child complains of a headache in the back of the head and such children are more likely to have an MRI scan of the brain. According to a new study published in Neurology, there is no reason for concern.

The researchers examined records of 308 children under 18 (median age was 12) seen at a pediatric neurology clinic and found that 7% of them had pain only in the occipital area, while another 14% had pain in the occipital and another part of the head. The majority of children had migraine headaches. Not surprisingly, more kids with pain in the back of the head had an MRI scan. However, they did not have any more abnormal MRI findings than children with pain in other parts of the head. In fact none of the 4 children in this group who had a serious problem (2 had tumors and 2 had increased pressure) had occipital pain.

Considering that migraine headaches are common in children (4-11% of all kids) there is no need to do MRI scans in all kids with recurrent headaches. The American Academy of Neurology and Child Neurology Society do not recommend a CAT or MRI scan in children with recurrent headaches and a normal neurologic examination. However, 45% of children do get neuroimaging. Imaging is particularly unnecessary if other members of the family suffer from similar headaches.

Neuroimaging is indicated in patients with recurrent headaches and abnormal neurologic examination, seizures, those with recent onset of severe headaches or recent changes in the character of headaches. Changes in the character of headaches may include shift in location, increase in frequency or severity, new associated symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, fever, and other.

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Sumatriptan (Imitrex) injection was introduced 25 years ago, but it remains extremely underutilized. Of course, why would you inject yourself if a pill does the job. Unfortunately, for many migraine sufferers sumatriptan and other triptan tablets do not provide complete or fast enough relief. In many patients tablets do not work well because some wake up with a severe migraine, in some it starts very suddenly, and in others it is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. All these conditions require a quickly acting drug that bypasses the stomach. Zolmitriptan (Zomig) and sumatriptan nasal sprays or sumatriptan nasal powder (Onzetra) sometimes work well and quickly enough, but the gold standard in the abortive treatment of migraines (and cluster headaches) is sumatriptan injection.

Sumatriptan injection works within 10-15 minutes and often provides complete relief of the headache and associated symptoms – nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, and other. Because of a sudden surge in the sumatriptan level in the blood, side effects are more common than with tablets. These can include pins-and-needles like sensations, tightness in the neck or chest, or temporary worsening of the headache. These side effects last only 15-20 minutes and do not prevent most patients from using injections.

Sumatriptan injections were originally released only in a 6 mg dose. A few years later, 4 mg dose became available. Last year, a simple-to-use autoinjector with 3 mg of sumatriptan (Zembrace) was approved by the FDA. Studies presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Headache Society in Boston compared the efficacy of 3 mg and 6 mg injections. Surprisingly, they were equally effective and well tolerated. The manufacturer of the 3 mg auto-injector also compared their injection device with two older devices. Findings of this study were not a surprise – Zembrace was easier to use with fewer mistakes and faster preparation and administration. Zembrace requires only two steps – pulling off a cap and pressing the pen-like device against the thigh (and holding it pressed for 10 seconds). Also, of all auto-injectors Zembrace has the thinnest needle.

One potential difficulty is the insurance coverage. Since Zembrace is more expensive, the insurers may offer to pay only for the old type devices with 4 or 6 mg of sumatriptan. The manufacturer does offer discounts and coupons, which you can find online.

The bottom line, if you are not getting good relief of your migraine headaches, ask your doctor about sumatriptan injections. If you have tried injections in the past and did not like the side effects – check if the dose you tried was 6 mg and if yes, you may want to try 3 or 4 mg injections.

Sumatriptan injection is the only FDA-approved treatment for cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are very sudden and brief attacks of excruciating headaches that pills rarely have a chance to control.

Conflict of interest disclosure: last year Zembrace manufacturer paid me to participate in an advisory board meeting.

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It is an established fact that migraine, and especially migraine with aura increases the risk of strokes. The increase in the risk is small, but according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal, it is higher during and after surgery.

The researchers examined records of 124,558 surgical patients at the Massachusetts General and two other hospitals. Among these, 8.2% or 10,179 patients had a history of migraines with 1,278 or 12.6% having migraine with aura. The risk of stroke during or within 30 days after surgery was 1-2 in 1,000 among patients without migraine history, 4 in 1,000 in those who had migraines and 6 in 1,000 in patients who had migraine with aura. So, the absolute risk of a stroke is still very small, but the relative risk is statistically much higher. They also discovered that strokes were more common in patients who during surgery needed medications to increase their blood pressure. Most of the strokes occurred within the first two days after surgery.

We do not know why migraine carries an increased risk for strokes, so the only recommendation the authors offer is for migraine diagnosis to be included in the preoperative risk assessment of patients. I would add that according to another study, taking high doses of magnesium and potassium supplements could possibly reduce this risk. Magnesium alone was shown to reduce the risk of strokes in another review of studies involving 6,477 patients. Our own research and that of others have shown the beneficial effect of magnesium on the prevention of migraines as well. Here is one of a dozen posts on magnesium on this blog that provides dosing recommendations.

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We often get requests for a telephone consultation from patients who live too far to come in for a visit. Unfortunately, insurance companies do not cover telephone or video-link consultations. An additional obstacle in the US is that doctors cannot treat patients outside the state where they are licensed because each state licenses their own doctors. If patients can afford to pay, we do offer follow-up telephone consultations to patients who live out of state or abroad and who were first seen in our office.

A group of Norwegian researchers examined how safe and effective it is to treat patients without seeing them in person by using a video link. The results of their study was published in a recent issue of the journal Neurology. They compared 3 and 12 month outcomes after a single consultation in 200 patients using telemedicine with 202 patients seen in the office. All patients were referred by their primary care doctor. They included only patients with non-acute headaches, that is those whose headaches started gradually more than 4 weeks prior to the visit and showed no clinical or MRI abnormalities. Doctors ordered about the same number of MRI scans in both group (58 and 62). Over the subsequent year a serious underlying cause was found in one patient in each group. Treatment outcomes after 1 year were the same in both group, although in both groups the improvement in headache severity and its impact on the daily life was modest. There was a high level of satisfaction with the consultation in both groups.

The main shortcoming of the study is that every patient completed a variety of questionnaires and had a much more detailed evaluation than you’d expect in a non-study setting. The study suggests that a single consultation may not be sufficient to provide an optimal outcome. Also, while over 40% of patients had chronic migraines, obviously none could be treated with Botox, which is the only FDA-approved treatment for chronic migraines.

In conclusion, consultation via telemedicine is a viable option for patients in areas without headache specialists.

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Cluster headache is one of the most painful conditions that has lead some patients call it a suicide headache. A new observational study done by researchers at the Eli Lilly company and Stanford University was presented at the recent annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society.

Considering that cluster headaches are relatively rare, the major strength of this study is its size – 7589 patients. These patients were compared to over 30,000 control subjects without headaches. We’ve always known that cluster headaches are more common in men with previous studies indicating that male to female ratio is between 5:1 and 3:1. However, only 57% of patients in this new report were males. This does not reflect my experience – I see at least five times as many men as women. It is possible that I underdiagnose cluster headaches in women or the study used unreliable data. In fact, the study data was collected from insurance claims, so I suspect that the truth is closer to my experience and to the older published data.

The study did find that thoughts of suicide were 2.5 times more common in patients with cluster headaches compared to controls, while depression, anxiety and sleep disorders were twice as common. Cluster headache patients also were 3 times more likely to have drug dependence. The most commonly prescribed drugs were opiates (narcotics) in 41%, which partially explains high drug dependence rates, steroids, such as prednisone (34%), triptans, such as sumatriptan (32%), antidepressants (31%), NSAIDs (29%), epilepsy drugs (28%), blood pressure drugs, such as verapamil (27%), and benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax (22%).

It is very unfortunate that over a period of one year only 30% of patients were prescribed drugs recommended for cluster headaches. We know that narcotics and benzodiazepine tranquilizers are not very effective and can lead to dependence and addiction. Drugs that are effective include a short course of steroids (prednisone), sumatriptan injections, blood pressure drug verapamil (often at a high dose), some epilepsy drugs and occasionally certain antidepressants. The report did not mention oxygen, which can stop individual attacks in up to 60% of cluster headache sufferers. Nerve blocks and to a lesser extent, Botox injections can also provide lasting relief. It is possible that the data on oxygen, nerve blocks and Botox was not available.

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Trigeminal neuralgia is a rare, but an extremely painful conditions. Patients compare the quality and the severity of pain to an electric shock. The underlying cause is usually compression of the trigeminal nerve by a blood vessel inside the skull and underneath the brain. Surgery to place a teflon pad between the nerve and the blood vessel is curative, but many patients can avoid surgery by using drugs such as carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, baclofen, and other. Botox, which is approved only for one pain condition – chronic migraines, appears to help other painful conditions, including trigeminal neuralgia (TN). A single previous double-blind placebo-controlled study by Chinese doctors confirmed our clinical observation that Botox does indeed help TN.

A new report presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society, also by Chinese researchers describes another positive study. This study compared a single injection of Botox with two injections separated by two weeks. It is not clear what was the logic in giving a second treatment so soon after the first one since Botox effect lasts 3 months. They followed 81 patients for 6 months and both groups had more than 80% success in the first 3 months and somewhat less of an effect in the last 3 months of the study. This was not a blinded study, but placebo response is relatively low in TN, probably because of the high pain intensity. While this study was not as scientific as the first one, it does offer some additional evidence of the efficacy of Botox for TN. Botox is certainly much safer than medications, although facial asymmetry can be an unpleasant cosmetic side effect, especially if pain involves the second branch of the TN (middle of the face).

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Concussion, even when it is mild, can result in a post-concussion syndrome. The main symptom is a headache and it is present in 60% of people within the first year after a mild traumatic brain injury. In people with personal or family history of migraines these headaches are often post-traumatic chronic migraines. Post-traumatic headaches and other symptoms such as dizziness and difficulty with vision, concentration and memory are often difficult to treat. However, an effective treatment of headaches often leads to an improvement in other symptoms as well.

Treatment with epilepsy drugs (Topamax, Depakote, Neurontin), blood pressure medications (propranolol), or antidepressants (Elavil, Cymbalta) can be effective in some, but not in all and not without side effects. Botox injections have been very effective without any serious side effects in many of my patients and similar results have been published by other doctors (see here and here).

Dr. Sylvia Lucas of University of Washington in Seattle presented her experience with the treatment of posttraumatic headaches with Botox at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society held in Boston last month. She described 15 patients who sustained a mild traumatic brain injury and suffered from chronic migraines for an average of 8 months prior to being treated with Botox. After a series of three Botox treatments given every 3 months most patients had a significant improvement in the number of headache days, as well as improved physical and social functioning, emotional well-being, energy level and a reduction in pain. As expected, no patient experienced any serious side effects.

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Stem cells hold great promise in the treatment of many conditions, possibly including migraines. In a post from 3 years ago I’ve written about a report from Australia that described 4 patients with refractory chronic headaches who had a very good response from stem cells. They were given stem cells for other conditions and coincidentally their migraines improved.

Since many patients come to our practice after seeing several other neurologists and headache specialists, we often have to resort to new, non-traditional, and unproven treatments. This is how I started using Botox 25 years ago (the FDA approved it for migraines only 6 years ago).

After reading the Australian report I decided to try stem cell treatment in some of my most refractory patients. Only patients who failed to respond to Botox and at least 3 preventive drugs were offered to participate in this pilot study. The only type of stem cells that the FDA allows to be injected are cells taken from patient’s own body without altering them. The richest source of stem cells in our bodies is fat. My colleague, Dr. Kenneth Rothaus who is a plastic surgeon, performed a liposuction to obtained fat tissue, from which we separated active cells.

We enrolled 9 patients and 3 did have significant temporary improvement. The results are obviously not dramatic, but it is possible that in less severely affected patients this treatment could work better. More importantly, using stem cells from an umbilical cord or placenta is more likely to be effective as these are younger and more active stem cells. There are many companies researching these cells for various indications, but not yet migraines. The reason why stem cells should help at least some migraine sufferers is the fact that they have strong anti-inflammatory properties while migraine involves neurogenic inflammation.

The results of our pilot study were just published in Case Reports in Neurology.

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Unfortunately, opioid hydromorphone (Dilaudid) is still administered to 25% of patients with an acute migraine visiting an ER. Benjamin Friedman and his colleagues at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx compared the efficacy of 1 mg of intravenous hydromorphone with an intravenous nausea medicine, prochlorperazine (Compazine), 10 mg plus diphenhydramine (Benadryl), 25 mg.
They presented their findings last month at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society. The study was blinded, but a safety monitoring committee stopped it early because the results were so lopsided. Prochlorperazine with diphenhydramine was twice as effective (60%) as hydromorphone (31%) in stopping a migraine and in preventing it from coming back within 48 hours.
So, if you end up in an ER for your migraine, refuse hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), or any other opioid (narcotic) medication. Here is my old post with drugs other than prochlorperazine that are also effective.

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We are in great need of better preventive treatments for migraines. CGRP monoclonal antibodies appear to fulfil their early promise. At the recent annual meeting of the American Headache Society four companies presented their data and it looks very good. The drugs are very effective and are likely to help about 60% of patients and what continues to surprise is their safety. Three of the four companies have completed their final, phase 3 trials and in a few months will submit their data to the FDA. The FDA has a year to decide whether to approve them, but considering their demonstrated safety and efficacy, there is no reason why they should not be approved.

Once they are approved, one issue that may pose a problem is the cost. I mentioned this in a previous post.

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Many migraine sufferers complain about worsening of their migraines when they travel to high altitudes. But do people who permanently live at high altitudes are more likely to have migraines? A report published in the European Journal of Neurology describes a population-based study done in Nepal in which researchers compared the incidence of migraines in Nepalese living at low and high altitudes. A previous study done in Peru suggested such an association between migraine and living at a high altitude.

2,100 Nepali-speaking adults were recruited into this study. More than half, or 1,100 (52.4%) lived above 1000 meters (3,280 feet) and almost one quarter or 470 (22.4%) lived at 2,000 meters (6,560 feet). The researchers took into account the age and the gender of participants. Migraine prevalence increased from 28% to 46% with altitude between 0 and 2,499 meters and thereafter decreased to 38% at 2,500 meters. The likelihood of having migraines was almost two times greater at all higher altitudes compared with those living below the altitude of 500 meters. In addition, frequency and duration of migraine attacks doubled and pain intensity increased by 50% at higher altitudes.

The authors concluded that “dwelling at high altitudes increases not only migraine prevalence but also the severity of its symptoms”.

Acetazolamide (Diamox) can be an effective drug for the prevention of headaches at high altitudes and with barometric pressure drops. Unfortunately, we do not know if taking this medicine long-term is also effective for the prevention of headaches in people living at high altitudes.

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Medical marijuana has been legalized in NY and more than 20 other states. It is approved in NY for several medical conditions, including pain and some of my patients with headaches (about one out of 3), arthritis, and other pains have found it to be very helpful. Some patients use it acutely (as a vaporizer or tincture) and report relief of pain, and/or nausea and for some it allows them to go to sleep and sleep off their migraines. Tablets of medical marijuana can prevent migraines if taken once or twice a day. Most people need products with a low THC/CBD ratio which does not cause euphoria or other cognitive effect.

Despite the requirement by states to have verified amounts of active ingredients, THC and CBD in the medical marijuana products, the efficacy and the side effects vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. This could be in part due to ingredients other than THC and CBD. Fortunately, many researchers are looking into the effect of pure ingredients and their mechanism of action.

Such a study was presented at the recent meeting of the American Headache Society by scientists from the Missouri State University led by Paul Durham. They developed a new animal model of migraine in rats and triggered a process in the rats’ brains that is similar to a migraine in humans. Administering cannabidiol (CBD) suppressed increased sensitivity in the trigeminal nerve and produced other positive effects, suggesting a possible mechanism by which CBD may relieve migraine and other facial pains. The next logical step would be to add small amounts of THC to see if it enhances the effect of CBD (so called entourage effect).

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Searching on Amazon for books on migraines yields over 2,291 items. Do we need another book? Having just read the latest book on migraines, Understanding Your Migraines, the answer is a definite yes.

The book is written by two colleagues who for many years co-directed the Dartmouth Headache Clinic. Dr. Morris Levin is now the Director of the Headache Center and a Professor of Neurology at UCSF, while Dr. Thomas Ward is Professor of Neurology Emeritus at the Geiser School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the editor of the journal Headache. They are clearly highly qualified to write such a book, but qualifications are not enough – you need to be a good writer as well. And in fact, excellent writing style and case-based discussion are two of the major strengths of the book.

The book consists of 17 chapters, which cover diagnosis and our understanding of the underlying causes of this condition. What the readers will find most useful is the treatment approaches. Drs. Levin and Ward go into great detail about various non-drug options, including nutrition, exercise, meditation, acupressure, herbal products, vitamins and minerals. They also present pros and cons of various medications, nerve blocks and describe in detail the most effective and the safest preventive treatment for chronic migraines, Botox injections.

One chapter is devoted to specifics of migraines in pregnancy and another one to children and adolescents. The book also includes individual chapters on tension-type headaches, cluster and other less common headache types, and postconcussion headaches.

The authors also mention an exciting new treatment option, which we expect to be approved by the end of 2018. Four companies are racing to bring to the market CGRP monoclonal antibodies, which act like vaccines against migraines. A single injection will provide 1 to 3 months of relief with very few side effects. It is likely that this treatment will help about 60% of patients with both episodic and chronic migraines. Cluster headache patients might also benefit from these biologic drugs.

Reading so much information can make it difficult to understand how to actually use it and how to talk to your doctor about all these options. The authors successfully tackle this problem by providing many real-life cases and by including a chapter, How to Communicate with Your Medical Team.

I am sure that this book will help many migraine sufferers find relief. You can buy it on Amazon.

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The most satisfying part of our work is that we can help more than 95% of our patients. However, a small number of headache sufferers defy our best efforts and continue to have severe pain, which ruins their quality of life.

I just returned from my second visit to lecture at the Berolina Klinik, a rehabilitation hospital in Germany. It has an outstanding record in rehabilitating chronic headache and other types of patients. I wrote about this clinic after my first visit in 2014.

A report just published in Headache describes a successful rehabilitation program of chronic headache patients in an outpatient setting at the Cleveland Clinic. Drs. Krause, Stillman and their colleagues report on 379 patients who were admitted to the IMATCH (Interdisciplinary Method for the Assessment and Treatment of Chronic Headache) program.

The program lasts 3 weeks, during which patients come to the clinic for 8 hours 5 days a week. Patients are informed that “the primary purpose of treatment is not to reduce pain, but rather to improve their ability to function during pain”. Despite this warning the average pain on admission was 6.1, while on discharge 3.5 and a year later, 3.3. Functional impairment, anxiety, and depression also improved and stayed improved a year after the treatment.

The program is clearly very effective and has an additional advantage of not requiring expensive hospitalization. Most patients stay at a hotel across the street from the clinic.

Here is an outline of the 3-week program:

Medical treatment:

1. History and initial medication adjustments on admission day.
2. Four days of intravenous therapy. Patients meet with the physician daily during infusions.
3. Two brief individual medical appointments per week during the second and third weeks.
4. All patients are drug tested at admission, and subsequent drug testing may be included if staff have concerns about illicit use.
5. Consultation with outside physicians as appropriate.

Psychological treatment:
1. One individual biofeedback session in each of the second and third weeks.
2. One individual psychotherapy session in each of the second and third weeks.
3. Psycho-educational group sessions spread throughout the three weeks. Topics include avoidance of pain displays, diminishing attention to headaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy for management of mood, activity pacing, time management, theories of pain, sleep hygiene, assertiveness training, relaxation training, self-esteem, management of headache flare-ups, and relapse prevention.
4. In the second and third weeks of treatment, patients’ families are requested to participate in a group family meeting, where the necessity of avoiding reinforcement of headache displays and disability is emphasized.

Nursing treatment:
1. Initial assessment, including current medication intake, document allergies, perform an EKG.
2. Patients receive at least 1-2 individual visits with a registered nurse during the second and third weeks of the program.
3. Nursing groups, including pathophysiology of headaches, proper use of a headache diary to track progress, dietary counseling, the impact of headaches and medications on sexuality, and medical communications. Nurses also train the patients in additional relaxation techniques beyond those covered in the psychology groups, and lead group relaxation practice.

Physical therapy treatment:
1. Physical therapy evaluation on their admission day, with particular attention paid to cranio-cervical dynamics. Data are used to develop an individualized, quota-based exercise plan including strengthening, flexibility, and endurance exercises.
2. Beginning on the day after admission, patients participate in daily group exercise sessions, where they learn and practice individually tailored exercise plans.
3. Twice weekly individual physical therapy sessions.

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Temporal arteritis occurs in one out of 5,000 people over 50. Women are 3-4 times more likely to be affected. It is not common below the age of 60 and becomes more prevalent with the advancing age. Temporal arteritis is also known as giant cell arteritis because it causes inflammation of arteries with giant cells seen under the microscope.

Headache is often the first symptom and it is typically localized to one temple, but it can involve other parts of the head and occur on both sides. If left undiagnosed and untreated temporal arteritis can cause a stroke and blindness, which can affect both eyes.

Besides headaches, temporal arteritis can cause neck and jaw pain, weakness, muscle aches, and a mild fever. The preliminary diagnosis is made by blood tests (ESR and CRP) and it is confirmed by a biopsy of the temporal artery. Polymyalgia rheumatica is a related rheumatological condition, which can occur alone or with temporal arteritis and it causes severe muscle pains.

Temporal arteritis (and polymyalgia rheumatica) are treated with steroid medications, such as prednisone. Although the initial dose is high, relatively small doses are usually effective for maintenance. Since the condition can last for years and long-term intake of prednisone can cause many potentially serious side effects it is very important to perform a temporal artery biopsy in most cases, rather than rely just on blood tests and clinical diagnosis.

Subcutaneous injection of Actemra (tocilizumab) was just approved by the FDA for the treatment of temporal arteritis. This drug has been available since 2010 for the treatment of rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis. Actemra was injected every two weeks for a year along with prednisone, but more patients were able to get off prednisone if they received Actemra rather than a placebo injection. Unfortunately Actemra also has potentially dangerous side effects, such as serious infections and it requires regular blood tests.

Because headache is one of the main symptoms of giant cell arteritis, the condition is often diagnosed by a neurologist or a primary care doctor. The treatment though is typically handled by a rheumatologist and they are already familiar with tocilizumab.

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Preeclampsia and eclampsia are complications of pregnancy which manifest by a severe headache and high blood pressure. If left untreated, they can cause strokes and kidney failure.

Fortunately, these conditions are very responsive to intravenous infusions of high doses of magnesium (5-6 grams at a time, while we give 1 gram to our migraine patients). A study recently published in Neurology suggests that even if preeclampsia is treated effectively, it can lead to persistent brain lesions. The researchers found these small white matter lesions (WMLs) in the healthy controls as well, but not as many as in women who suffered from preeclampsia 5 to 15 years prior to the study. We also see these lesions, which appear as small spots, on MRI scans of patients with migraines. The exact nature of these spots remains unclear, but the leading theory is that they are due to impaired blood flow.

The authors looked at a wide variety of factors that might have predisposed women to preeclampsia and subsequent WMLs, but did not find any. They did confirm previous findings indicating that age and high blood pressure increases the number of WMLs, but those with preeclampsia had more WMLs in the temporal lobes of the brain. They also found a decrease of the cortical volume, which means loss of brain cells on the surface of the brain.

Surprisingly, one of the factors they did not measure was magnesium levels. If preeclampsia responds so well to magnesium, it is possible that these women have chronic magnesium deficiency. Magnesium deficiency predisposes people not only to migraines, but also to heart attacks and strokes. The test that should have been done is red blood cell (RBC) magnesium since 98% of magnesium is inside the cells or in the bones. The most commonly used serum magnesium level measures the remaining 2% and is highly unreliable.

If you’ve suffered from preeclampsia or eclampsia, in addition to reducing other risk factors for vascular problems – control your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol, stop smoking if you smoke, lose weight, and exercise, you may also want to ask your doctor to check your RBC magnesium level. If the level is low or at the bottom of normal range, take a magnesium supplement. A good starting dose is 400 mg of magnesium glycinate taken daily with food. If subsequent tests show no improvement, the dose can be increased to 400 mg twice a day and even higher.

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Inhalation of pure oxygen under high flow is an effective treatment for an acute cluster headache, although not migraines. Headache is one of the most common symptoms of traumatic brain injury and postconcussion syndrome and there is evidence that oxygen under pressure can help those conditions.

A review article on the use of oxygen to treat mild and moderate traumatic brain injury and postconcussion syndrome was recently published in Neurology. THe authors reviewed 5 previously published studies and concluded that hyperbaric oxygen in fact does help patients with brain trauma and postconcussion syndrome.

While cluster headache patients can breathe in oxygen through a mask from a tank of oxygen delivered to their home, hyperbaric oxygen requires a special room or a chamber. Hyperbaric means that oxygen is under increased pressure, although the authors report that moderate pressure (between 1 and 2 ATA) may be better than high pressure. Even hyperbaric air, that is normal air under pressure, may have beneficial effects.

The authors conclude that, there is sufficient evidence for the safety and preliminary efficacy from clinical data to support the use of hyperbaric oxygen in mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and postconcussion syndrome. They also state that “It would be a great loss to clinical medicine to ignore the large body of evidence collected so far that consistently concludes that hyperbaric oxygen is effective in treatment of brain injuries.”

Fortunately, there are many hospitals and private clinics all around the country that offer hyperbaric oxygen. They often advertise its use for a variety of unproven indications, but if you suffer from a traumatic brain injury, this treatment may be worth trying. A major obstacle though could be the cost of treatment since insurance companies are not likely to cover this treatment.

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The field of marijuana research is starting to take off due to the wider acceptance of medicinal marijuana. The other night I attended a lecture in NYC by the “father of cannabis”, Raphael Mechoulam.

According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Mechoulam is an Israeli organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Mechoulam is best known for his work (together with Y. Gaoni) in the isolation, structure elucidation and total synthesis of THC (?9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the main active ingredient of cannabis and for the isolation and the identification of the endogenous cannabinoids anandamide from the brain and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) from peripheral organs together with his students, postdocs and collaborators.”

Dr. Mechoulam identified THC in 1964 and in his lecture he lamented the paucity of research into the many potential healing properties of cannabis in the past 50 years. He strongly feels that the two main active ingredients in marijuana, THC and CBD should be tested rigorously in large double-blind studies just like any other prescription drug. This will allow doctors to prescribe a proven medicine, rather than rely on anecdotal reports and go through trial and error, as we are doing now. His research suggests that cannabis ingredients could possibly help a wide variety of conditions, from diabetes and cancer to pain and nausea.

Prescribing medical marijuana is at least possible in New York and 20 other states, so that we do not have to wait, possibly up to 10 years, for a cannabis-based drug to be approved by the FDA (one CBD-containing drug might be approved soon for a rare form of epilepsy).

At this time we have to go through trials of various ratios of THC and CBD and various modes of delivery (inhaled, sublingual or oral) to determine the best treatment for each patients. Another obstacle is the fact that no insurance company pays for medical marijuana. After a year of prescribing medical marijuana for patients with migraine and other painful conditions it is clear that it works for a minority of my patients. However, I prescribe it only after more traditional methods fail, so my results may not be as good as if I used medical marijuana earlier. Our standard approach involves lifestyle changes, regular exercise, dietary changes, magnesium, CoQ10, and other supplements, followed by drugs and Botox injections. These are mostly well-studied treatments and with the possible exception of drugs, should precede the use of medical marijuana. Having said that, For a few of my patients medical marijuana dramatically improved their quality of life and I am very glad that we have this treatment option available.

Dr. Rafael Mechoulam and Dr. Alexander Mauskop
May 4, 2017, NYC

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Migraine sufferers are more likely to have insomnia than people without migraines. Depression and anxiety, which are more common in migraineurs can often lead to insomnia as well. Surveys indicate that 38% of migraine sufferers sleep less than 6 hours, compared to 10% of the general population. Insomnia is more common in patients with chronic migraine compared with patients who have episodic migraines. Chronic migraine is defined as having 15 or more headache days each month with a migrainous headache on at least 8 of those days.

Most people are reluctant to start taking sleep medications because of the reasonable fear of becoming dependent on medicine, having somnolence the next day and other short-term and long-term side effects. Fortunately, non-drug therapies can be quite effective. In some, natural remedies, such as magnesium, valerian root and melatonin work well without any side effects. Another approach is cognitive-behavioral. According to a study by psychologists at the University of Mississippi, behavioral treatments can be effective in relieving insomnia and in reducing headaches in people with chronic migraine.

The researchers compared cognitive-behavioral therapy specifically developed for insomnia with sham treatment. Those in the active group were asked to go to sleep at the same time, try to stay in bed for 8 hours, avoid reading, watching TV or using their cell phone in bed, and not to nap. If they could not fall asleep after 30 minutes, they were told to get up and engage in a quiet activity. Some were also subjected to sleep restriction – not being allowed to sleep for more hours than the patients reported getting prior to treatment, in the hope that this will lead to better sleep in the long term. The sham group was instructed to eat some protein in the morning, eat dinner at the same time, keep up with their fluid intake, perform range of movements exercise, and regularly press on an acupuncture point above the elbow.

After two weeks of this intervention headaches improved in the sham group slightly more than the active group, but six weeks later, headache frequency dropped by 49% in the active group and 25% in the sham group. Improvement in insomnia symptoms strongly correlated with the headache frequency. The cognitive-behavioral group had a significant increase in the total sleep time and the quality of sleep.

This was a relatively small study, but there is a large body of evidence that behavioral therapies do relieve insomnia. And it is no surprise that better sleep is associated with fewer headaches since sleep deprivation is a common migraine trigger. Sleep restriction is the only part of this treatment that has contraindications – it should be avoided in patients with bipolar disorder or epilepsy.

Another simple method, which I’ve used over the years whenever I cannot fall asleep, is visualization. You have to use not only visual images, but engage all of your senses. For example, imagine yourself in a place where you tend to feel relaxed (lying on a beach, on a cool lawn, on a float in a pool, etc). See all the details and also hear the sound of the wind or waves, smell the ocean or the grass, feel the touch of the wind or sand. It takes an effort at first, but use the same image every time and after a while, as soon as you go to that place, you fall asleep in minutes. Here I found more detailed instructions for this method.

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I am certain that you will learn a lot of useful information from listening to the top headache experts in the world. The event is free during the week when it is held (April 23 – 29), but afterwards you will have to pay for full access to all interviews. The Migraine World Summit is in its second year and it again assembled excellent speakers to address a wide variety of headache-related topics. Last year I spoke on non-drug therapies and this year the speakers are again addressing not only medications, but many alternative treatments and self-care. In addition to many leading neurologists, the event features Ping Ho, MA, MPH, a UCLA expert on alternative therapies, meteorologist, Michael Steinberg of Accuweather, Vidyamala Burch, a mindfulness expert, an Australian psychologist, Paul Martin, a geneticist, Professor Lyn Griffiths of Queensland UT (the event is organized by an Australian migraine sufferer Carl Cincinnato, so there are many Australians represented), and over 30 other experts.

Here is a blurb from the organizers:

In it’s first year, The Migraine World Summit became the largest ever conference for migraine patients. In 2017, we’re back with 36 brand NEW interviews where you’ll discover even more about…

What are the best treatments for migraine?
What can I do when I’ve already tried everything?
What are the secrets to finding effective natural alternatives?
How can I cope with the anxiety, judgment and social stigma of chronic migraine?
What new treatments are coming that I should be aware of?
What are the most common challenges that could appear?
The 2017 Migraine World Summit is online and free from April 23 – 29, 2017!

Register for FREE now at the following link:

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Stroke is slightly more common in migraine sufferers. There are two main types of stroke: hemorrhagic, which results from a burst blood vessel in the brain and ischemic, which is due to a blood clot closing off blood supply to a part of the brain. Closure of a blood vessel by a clot can be due to a blood clotting disorder, cholesterol plaque, or dissection of a blood vessel. Dissection is a lengthwise tear in the blood vessel wall.

A study just published by Italian researchers in JAMA Neurology included 2,485 patients aged 18 to 45 years with first-ever acute ischemic stroke. Of these patients 334 or 13% had a dissection and 2151 or 87% had a stroke not caused by dissection. Migraine was more common in the dissection group 31% vs 24% in non-dissection group. These differences are relatively small, but the importance of the study is that it should make doctors consider the possibility of a dissection when a patient with migraines develops a different type of headache or has a new onset of neck pain. If a dissection is suspected, a CT angiogram or an MRA should be done. Luckily, many dissections do not cause strokes and heal on their own. However, we do recommend blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants) for several months after the dissection even in the absence of a stroke.

My previous post described a scientific review on this topic, that showed a two-fold increase in the risk of dissection in migraine sufferers. Another practical aspect of these studies, which is mentioned in that previous post, is that if you suffer from migraines, avoid neck manipulation by chiropractors. If you do see a chiropractor, ask them not to do high velocity manipulations (sudden jerky movements), as I did when I visited a chiropractor.

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Photophobia, or sensitivity to light is one of the most common symptoms that accompany a migraine attack. Many patients remains photophobic even after the headache has resolved. In some, a prolonged exposure to bright light or as little as a momentary reflection of the sun in the window glass or water surface can bring on a severe attack.

It is not unusual for some of my patients to wear sunglasses indoors. Once, when I had a migraine while driving at night I had to put on my sunglasses because the headlights of oncoming cars made the pain worse (luckily, I had a sumatriptan injection with me and as soon as I got off the highway and to a traffic light, I gave myself a shot).

Dr. Kathleen Digre, a professor Neurology and Ophthalmolgy at the University of Utah, whose article on dry eyes and migraines I quoted a couple of years ago, recently stated that staying in the dark may actually make photophobia worse. It may be better to gradually expose yourself to more light when you are not in the middle of an attack.

A small study suggested that people who suffer from photophobia between migraine attacks are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than those without photophobia between attacks and those without migraines. It is not clear if anxiety and depression in these patients is due to more severe migraines.

Treatments for photophobia mentioned by Dr. Digre include botulinum toxin (Botox) injections, nerve blocks, medications such as gabapentin, and a natural supplement, melatonin. I should add that any effective acute and preventive treatment that leads to reduced frequency and duration of the attacks can lead to a reduction in photophobia. Effective treatment is also likely to improve phonophobia (sensitivity to noise) and osmophobia (sensitivity to smells), which are somewhat less common.

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Postconcussion symptoms can be debilitating and can persist for long periods of time, both in kids and adults. Persistence of headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating and with memory is often compounded by depression and anxiety. The usual care consists of mild exercises, sleep medications, antidepressants, and other drugs.

A new study published in Pediatrics shows very promising results from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in teens with post-concussion symptoms. Children aged 11 to 17 years with persistent symptoms for more than a month after sports-related concussion were randomly assigned to receive collaborative care that included CBT (25 kids) or care as usual (24 kids). The children were assessed before treatment and after 1, 3, and 6 months.

Six months after the baseline evaluation 13% of children who received CBT and 42% of control patients reported high levels of postconcussive symptoms. Depression improved by at least 50% in 78% of the CBT group and 46% of control patients. Anxiety symptoms were at the same level in both groups.

CBT has been shown to be effective in children and adolescents with chronic migraines, so it is not surprising that it would also help with postconcussion headaches and other symptoms. And the effect is quite dramatic.

A major obstacle for wider adoption of CBT is the cost and difficulty in finding a qualified psychologist. In a previous post I mentioned two very effective and scientifically verified online programs, ThisWayUp and moodGYM. These do require persistence and discipline, which in case of teens, parents might be able to provide.

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Beta-blocker propranolol (Inderal) was first approved over 50 years ago for the treatment of hypertension and 10 years later became the first drug to be approved for the prevention of migraine headaches. Beta-blockers that followed, including atenolol, timolol, nebivolol, and other, also work for the prevention of migraines. Beta-blockers are also used to treat benign essential or familial tremor, performance anxiety, and other disorders.

A study recently published in Arthritis Care and Research suggests that beta-blockers also reduce arthritis pain. The researchers evaluated 873 patients who suffered from painful osteoarthritis of the hip and/or knee as well as hypertension and who were taking at least one anti-hypertensive medication. Their analysis took into account age, gender, body mass index (BMI), knee or hip osteoarthritis, history of joint replacement, anxiety and depression. The result of this sophisticated analysis showed that patients who were taking beta-blockers had less pain than patients taking other anti-hypertensive medications. Patients taking beta-blockers were also found to be taking less of opioid (narcotic) and other prescription pain medications.

This type of study shows a correlation between the use of certain medications and pain, however to prove that beta-blockers are indeed effective for the pain of osteoarthritis or any other type of pain, we need prospective blinded studies. Until we have those kind of studies, which often take years to complete, it seems prudent to consider using beta-blockers as first-line drugs for the prevention of migraines in patients who also suffer from arthritis pain.

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A new electric device is being tested for the treatment of migraine by an Israeli company, Theranica. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) has been successfully used for the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders for decades. The theory behind it is the so-called gate theory of pain. It is thought that by stimulating larger nerve fibers we can block pain messages sent by smaller pain-sensing nerve fibers.

Cefaly is a TENS device which became available in 2014 and it provides electrical stimulation of the supraorbital nerves in the forehead. Only small studies have been conducted, so it is not clear how well Cefaly relieves migraines. As far as our experience, we at the NY Headache Center usually treat more severely affected patients, so it is possible that the results are better in people with less severe migraines.

The new wireless patch that is being developed by Theranica is applied to the upper arm. The results of the first study of this patch were published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study author, is a well-known neurologist and pain researcher, Dr. David Yarnitsky of Technion Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel. He was quoted saying, “People with migraine are looking for non-drug treatments, and this new device is easy to use, has no side effects and can be conveniently used in work or social settings.”

The patch device is controlled by a smartphone app. It was studied in 71 patients with episodic migraine who had two to eight attacks per month and who were not on any preventive medications for migraines. The device was applied soon after the start of a migraine and kept in place for 20 minutes.

The devices were programmed to randomly give either a very weak stimulation to serve as placebo or different levels of stronger electrical stimulation.

A total of 299 migraine attacks were treated by these 71 patients. Two hours after the start of real treatment, pain was reduced by at least 50% in 64 percent of patients, compared to 26 percent of patients who received the sham stimulation.

Starting treatment early produced better results, which is similar to what we see with all migraine medications as well. None of the participants found the treatment to be painful.

The device is very safe and we hope that the ongoing trial that Theranica is conducting in the US will confirm its efficacy. It is not yet available in this or any other country.

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Cluster headaches are much less common than migraines (less than a million vs 36 million sufferers), but are arguably the most painful type of headaches a man can experience. And it is usually a man because cluster headaches are thought to be 3-5 times more common in men. However, a study just published in Neurology suggests that the ratio of men to women is closer to 2:1.

This study by Danish researchers also established that women suffering from cluster headaches are more often misdiagnosed than men – 61% vs 46%. Consequently, it takes a year longer for a woman to be diagnosed than for a man – 6.5 years vs 5.5 years. But considering how devastating these headaches can be, these numbers are terrible for both sexes.

Cluster headaches get their name from the fact that they occur in clusters – daily or more frequent attacks lasting one to three hours for a period of a month or two, each year and often at the same time of year. One surprising finding of the study is that women are more likely to have chronic cluster headaches (no break from attacks for more than a month) – 44% vs 32%.

The reason for such high rates of misdiagnosis and long delays in diagnosing cluster headaches is that it is a relatively rare type of headaches and that it is easy to mistake cluster for a migraine or a sinus headache. Cluster headache is always one-sided and centers in the eye, which is common with migraines. It is usually accompanied by a runny nose (and tearing with redness of the eye) as occurs with a sinus headache.

But cluster headaches also have very distinctive features that should make the diagnosis easy, if only doctors asked a few questions. I’ve had a fair number of patients who diagnosed themselves after being misdiagnosed by doctors. During a cluster attack patients tend to be restless, pacing around, hitting their fist or even their head against walls, and sometimes screaming from pain, while migraine sufferers tend to stay very quiet since every movement, sound, and light worsen the pain. The fact that these occur every night for an hour or two and then resolve on their own is also a telltale sign. Migraine pain lasts for at least 4 hours and often for a couple of days without a break. Sinus headaches do not come and go and are easy to rule out by a CAT scan, a standard equipment in every emergency room and cluster sufferers do often end up in an ER.

Fortunately, once the correct diagnosis is made, cluster headaches can be treated very effectively in most patients. Some of the treatments overlap with migraines, such as sumatriptan injections, magnesium infusions, occipital nerve blocks, and Botox injections, but other help only cluster headaches. These include a 10-day high-dose course of steroids, oxygen inhalation, high-dose verapamil, lithium, and other.

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With 13 million participants, soccer is the third most popular sport in the US after basketball and baseball. Worldwide, 250 million people play soccer. Unfortunately, a number of studies have linked playing soccer with neurological symptoms. The latest study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine published in Neurology evaluated 222 amateur soccer players aged 18 and older (mostly in their 20s and 30s) over a two-week period.

The study suggests that playing soccer even without heading the ball is associated with symptoms of a concussion. Those who did not report heading the ball often had unintentional head impacts (head to head, elbow or knee to head, head kicked, etc) and were much more likely to have concussion-related symptoms which were rated as moderate or severe. These symptoms included headache, dizziness, feeling dazed, and other. Unintentional head impacts were experienced by 37% of men and 43% of women, while heading-related symptoms were reported by 20%.

Not all symptoms necessarily represent a concussion and some pain and dizziness could be neck-related, so additional large studies are needed. Some studies have detected brain changes in soccer players who frequently head the ball, but these findings are considered to be preliminary and not conclusive.

According to the US Soccer Federation children under the age of 10 should not be allowed to head the ball in practice or in games. Children aged 11 to 13 are allowed to head the ball only during practice. However, this new study suggests that soccer players of any age may be risking brain injury, mostly from heading and unintentional head injuries.

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Naltrexone, along with naloxone are narcotic (opioid) antidotes, that is they counteract the effect of narcotics and are used to treat overdoses with heroin, fentanyl, Percocet, Vicodin, and other opioid drugs. Surprisingly, low doses of naltrexone (LDN) seem to be effective in treating pain. LDN has been also used to treat symptom in conditions such as depression, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, complex regional pain syndrome (which used to be called reflex sympathetic dystrophy), and autoimmune disorders.

Low dose naltrexone is not a typical pain killer, but may be helping pain by reducing inflammation. Instead of opioid receptors, it works on Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) receptors on glial cells. Glial cells surround the nerve cells and play important functions in the brain, beyond just a supporting role that had been assigned to them for many years. Opioid drugs are known to promote inflammation through the brain immune system leading to worsening of pain over time. Recent discoveries have shown that the Toll-like receptors are involved in triggering these inflammatory immune events. These discoveries have led many researchers to look at ways to block TLR4, but so far no such drug has been developed. We do have several existing medications that seem to block TLR4. Besides LDN, amitriptyline (Elavil) and cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) are two other drugs that block TLR4 and that have been used for years to treat pain.

No large controlled studies of LDN for migraines, pain or any other condition have been conducted to date. Despite the fact that the evidence is only anecdotal and that LDN my work purely through the placebo effect, advantages of LDN are that it is inexpensive and safe. Naltrexone is available in 25 and 50 mg tablets, while the amount used for LDN is between 1.5 to 4.5 mg. This means that it can be obtained only from a compounding pharmacy. Naltrexone is not a controlled substance, but it does require a prescription from the doctor.

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Generic drugs should be cheap, but you still may be overpaying for them. I mentioned this problem in a previous post, but it bears repeating – your copay could be higher than an out-of-pocket price for some generic drugs. For example, 9 tablets of generic sumatriptan 100 mg can be purchased from a mail order pharmacy such as or a local pharmacy you can find on for about $20. Your copay through your insurance plan could be $25 or much higher. Read more about this in a story.

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We’ve adopted electronic medical records (EMR) over 10 years ago when the upfront costs were high and the training curve was steep. One of the reasons for our early adoption was that we were running out of space for paper charts in our small Manhattan office. We also knew that EMR would improve the quality of care and safety – it allows us to see the lists of problems, allergies, medications, and other information at a glance on one screen. Sending prescriptions electronically dramatically reduces errors and saves time. Being able to log onto our system from home improved the after-hours care of our patients. We’ve never regretted implementing EMR years before EMR was mandated by the government.

Now for the negatives. A recent study by Dr. Christine Sinsky and colleagues published in the Annals of Internal Medicine is entitled, Allocation of physician time in ambulatory practice: A time and motion study in 4 specialties.

For this study, fifty-seven ambulatory care physicians in four specialties (family medicine, internal medicine, cardiology, orthopedics) in four states were directly observed for 430 hours. Twenty of these physicians also completed after-hours diaries. The results were striking: physicians spent 27% of their time on direct clinical face time and 49% on electronic health records and deskwork, while the rest was spent on administrative and other tasks. Even in the exam room, physicians spent 53% of the time on direct clinical face time and 37% on electronic health records and deskwork. They also spent 1-2 hours each night after office hours devoted primarily to electronic health records completion. The authors determined that for every hour physicians spent in direct clinical face time with patients, they spent additional 2 hours on electronic health records and deskwork during the clinic day and 1-2 hours of personal time finishing up electronic health records and deskwork at night.

So, when you see a doctor or a nurse practitioner, keep in mind that in addition to the time he or she spends with you, they have to spend twice as much time typing information into the computer, completing disability, insurance, and other forms, speaking to doctors and pharmacists, answering emails, staying up-to-date with latest medical discoveries, and doing other work. Dr. Neil Busis, writing in Neurology Today comments that the study confirms what we already know, that EHR use adds considerable clerical burden to practice. The study authors found that the use of EMR have decreased satisfaction and increased the risk for professional burnout. Physicians who burn out are at a significantly greater risk for depression and are more likely than satisfied colleagues to provide lower-quality patient care and to leave clinical practice early. Dr. Busis also notes that for many years the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were telling doctors that they are not interested in listening to complaints until doctors can demonstrate that their policies will adversely affect their beneficiaries by decreasing access to care. This study provides such information. The idea is not to stop using EMR, but to reduce the need for meaningless tasks and to provide adequate compensation which accounts for all of the tasks doctor completes and not only for the face to face encounters.

I want to stress that, at least in our office, replacing paper charts with EMR has improved care of our patients, which in turn made our work even more satisfying. However, we would also love to spend less time doing paperwork.

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Estrogen-based oral contraceptives are usually contraindicated for women who have migraines with aura. In the latest issue of the journal Headache, Dr. Anne Calhoun of the Carolina Headache Institute argues that this contraindication is no longer valid.

She analyzes research studies that consistently show that stroke risk is not increased with today’s very low dose combined hormonal contraceptives containing 20-25 µg ethinyl estradiol and that continuous ultra low-dose formulations (10-15 µg) may even reduce the frequency of migraine auras. The past prohibitions were mostly based on the risk associated with contraceptives containing over 30 µg and often 50 µg of estradiol.

We often use continuous contraception (not having a period for 3 to 12 months) in women with menstrually-related migraines, which usually are not accompanied by aura.

There is no doubt that the risk of strokes in women with migraines with aura who take oral contraceptives is significantly increased by smoking and other stroke risk factors, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other. So, women who have migraine with aura and take estrogen-based contraceptives should not smoke, should exercise regularly, have a healthy diet and have regular check-ups to detect conditions that may augment the risk of strokes. If such risk factors are present, progesterone-only or non-hormonal contraceptives should be used.

Dr. Calhoun also points out other benefits of oral contraceptives, besides the reduction of the chance of undesired pregnancy, relief of painful periods, excessive bleeding, acne, and PMS. These include reduction in death rate from any cause, 80% reduction in the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers and reduced risk of colorectal cancer. On the other hand, oral contraceptives do increase the risk of breast cancer.

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Physical and mental symptoms can persist after a concussion and strangely, mild concussions are more likely to cause persistent symptoms than severe ones. In a previous post, Rest your brain after a head injury I described a study that involved 335 children and young adults. As the title indicates, cognitive rest was associated with a faster recovery.

Another post on concussion and post-concussion headaches mentioned that experts advocate physical rest as well. However, a new study of over 3,000 Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 18 with concussion suggests that the recovery is faster in those who get physically active within the first week of an acute concussion. Of the children who engaged in physical activity within the first week 29% had persistent post-concussive symptoms four weeks later compared to 40% of those who did not engage in any physical activity. This was true whether the child participated only in light aerobic exercise (33% of kids), sport-specific exercise (9%), noncontact drills (6%), full-contact practice (4%), or full competition (17%). I am very surprised that kids were allowed to return to full-contact practice and full competition before complete recovery.

These finding contradict all of the concussion guidelines, which recommend a period of physical and cognitive rest following a concussion until post-concussive symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, and headaches have resolved. The guidelines also advise to increase the amount of physical activity only if symptoms do not worsen. These guidelines were developed without the benefit of large controlled studies, but rather by a consensus of experts.

The authors also think that children who rest for a long period of time may be unnecessarily deprived of physical activity’s benefits on the growing body. Too much rest may also lead to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

“We may need to reconsider the current recommendations for strict conservative rest until patients are symptom-free,” study author Roger Zemek, MD, PhD, associate professor and director of research at the University of Ottawa in Canada, said in an interview with Neurology Today. “Patients should be encouraged to participate in some form of active physical rehabilitation following concussion as long as the activity does not put them at risk of re-injury.”

The study authors did caution that “Participation in activities that might introduce risk for collision or falls should remain prohibited until clearance by a health professional to reduce the risk for a potentially more serious second concussion during a period of increased vulnerability.”

Two prominent sports neurologists said that not much will change at their clinics, because programs like the one in the study are already in place. They generally prescribe an early, graduated, return to physical activity for children and adolescents who present with a sports-related concussion. (Phases include light activity like walking, moderate activity like jogging, and moderate-heavy activity like non-contact practice or drills.) Patients may return to full activity within one week, although they may not progress by more than one phase per day. These neurologists also felt that avoidance of all activity can be harmful – not just on physical health, but also on mental health.

They also agreed that kids must not be allowed to immediately return to full-contact sport or high risk activities before complete recovery because of the increased risk of re-injury.

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Italian researchers published a study in the journal Headache that attempted to correlate the attachment style in children with migraines with headache severity and psychological symptoms.

Attachment style typically develops in the first year of life. The premise of the study was derived from the attachment theory which suggests that early interpersonal relationships may determine future psychological problems and painful conditions. Previous studies have shown that people with insecure attachment styles tend to experience more pain than people with secure attachment style.

The study involved 90 children with migraines. The mean age was 12 years and there were 54 girls and 36 boys in the study. The kids were divided into a group with very frequent headaches (1 to 7 a week) and those with infrequent attacks – 3 or fewer per month. They also grouped them into those with severe pain, which interrupted their daily activities and those with mild pain that allowed them to function normally. The children were tested for anxiety, depression, and somatization (tendency to have physical complaints as a manifestation of psychological distress). They were also evaluated for the attachment style and were assigned into “secure,” “avoidant,” “ambivalent,” and “disorganized/confused” groups.

Interestingly, the researchers found a significant relationship between the attachment style and migraine features. Ambivalent attachment was present in 51% of children with high frequency of attacks and in 50% of those with severe pain. Anxiety, depression, and somatization were higher in patients with ambivalent attachment style. They also showed an association between high attack frequency and high anxiety levels in children with ambivalent attachment style.

The authors concluded: “We found that the ambivalent attachment style is associated with more severe migraine and higher psychological symptoms. These results can have therapeutic consequences. Given the high risk of developing severe headache and psychological distress, special attention should be paid to children with migraine showing an ambivalent pattern of attachment style. Indeed, a prophylactic and psychological therapy could often be necessary for these patients.”

People who have an anxious–ambivalent attachment style show a high desire for intimacy but often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry that people will not reciprocate their feelings. It is possible to mitigate the negative effects of the ambivalent attachment style even in adulthood. It does require a major effort and help from a psychotherapist.

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Botox is by far the safest and the most effective preventive treatment for chronic and frequent episodic migraine headaches. The only downside is the cost. A 200-unit vial of Botox costs about $1,200. Most insurance companies cover Botox if you have chronic migraines (15 or more headache days each month) and if you’ve tried and failed (it did not help or caused side effects) 2 or 3 preventive medications. The copay for a vial of Botox is often as high as $400 or more. If your insurance does not cover Botox at all, or you have “only” 10 to 14 headache days each month, or you do not want to take daily drugs because of potential side effects, you may have to pay the entire cost. To reduce this cost, you may want to ask the doctor to start with 100 units instead of the standard dose of 155 units. Since the manufacturer makes only 100 and 200 unit vilas, the remaining 45 units are discarded. Some doctors are very accommodating, but I’ve heard of many that will not deviate from the FDA-approved protocol of 155 units injected into 31 spots. I discussed some of this in a recent post.

Another way to avoid excessive costs when paying out of pocket for Botox is to avoid large hospitals. A few years ago, while giving lectures at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, I discovered that they all charged $6,000 for one Botox treatment. What prompted this post is that I recently saw a patient who had Botox injections at the Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and had to pay $11,000. Every charge for a procedure done in a hospital or even at a doctor practice that is owned by the hospital, includes a hefty “facility fee”. This is why hospitals often buy doctor practices – they can triple the charges and even insurers such as Medicare and Medicaid will pay at an inflated rate.

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Atul Gawande is a surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He is also a very talented writer who has written four books and has been writing for the New Yorker since 1998. I had the privilege of meeting him and found him to be very humble and low-key, despite him being a surgeon, MacArthur “genius” award recipient, famous writer, etc. His last book, Being Mortal should be read by everyone who is dealing with elderly parents, grandparents, or friends.

His last article in the New Yorker, The Heroism of Incremental Care describes how headache specialists approach patients with severe and persistent migraine headaches. Fortunately, these are a minority of our patients, but require our unflagging attention and care. Some tell me that they’ve tried “everything” and ask, “please do not abandon me”. My response is to reassure the person that I will never stop trying to help and also that I’ve never seen anyone who has tried everything – we always find medications, supplements, devices, procedures, and other treatments that the patient has not yet tried.

Just like with the man in Gawande’s story, some patients improve very slowly and over a long period of time, so patience and perseverance are essential. I must admit that we cannot be sure if it is our treatment or just the passage of time that leads to improvement. However, it may not matter since our support helps avoid a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that can lead to depression and a decline in the ability to function.

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Vestibular migraine has been also called migraine-associated vertigo or dizziness and migrainous vertigo. Diagnostic criteria, according to the international headache classification, include a current or past history of migraine with or without aura, attacks lasting between 5 minutes and 72 hours, vestibular symptoms of moderate or severe intensity. These vestibular symptoms include spontaneous vertigo, positional vertigo occurring after a change of head position; vertigo triggered by a complex or large moving visual stimulus, head motion-induced vertigo occurring during head motion, head motion-induced dizziness with nausea. There is also a requirement for at least half of episodes to be associated with a typical migraine headache or visual aura.

These criteria are the result of a consensus arrived at by headache specialists, which makes them based on cases seen by these specialists, rather than large scientific studies. I’ve encountered some patients who do not have migraine headaches or visual auras, but probably still suffer from migraine-related dizziness or vertigo.

We also lack any studies of treatment for patients with vestibular migraine. My own observation is that vestibular symptoms improve with the treatment of migraine headaches. In patients who suffer from vestibular symptoms with few or no headaches we try similar treatments first – magnesium, CoQ10 and other supplements (we often check blood levels of RBC magnesium and CoQ10), regular aerobic exercise, and medications, such as gabapentin and nortiptyline. When headaches are very frequent we give Botox injections, which are not appropriate if headaches are infrequent.

The classification of headaches also lists benign paroxysmal vertigo as a condition which occurs in children and which may be associated with migraines. (This is different from benign positional vertigo which is triggered by a loose crystal in the inner ear and which can be cured with the Epley maneuver). This migraine-related vertigo usually occurs without a warning and resolves spontaneously after minutes to hours without loss of consciousness. Patients usually have one of the following features: nystagmus (beating movement of the eyes to one side), unsteadiness, vomiting, paleness, or fearfulness. The neurological examination, audiometry (hearing test) and vestibular functions (test also done by an ENT specialist) are normal between attacks.

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Severe headache is a common symptom of acute glaucoma. It comes from a sudden increase in the intra-ocular pressure caused by the closure of channels that drain fluid from the eyeball. This headache can be similar to a migraine with nausea and light sensitivity. Acute glaucoma is rarely misdiagnosed as a migraine because typically, there is no history of migraines and the eye often gets red, painful with profuse tearing. Cluster headache is sometimes more similar to acute angle closure glaucoma because it also can cause redness of the eye and tearing.

This post was prompted by patient I just saw. This 52-year-old woman has had right-sided migraines for 10 years and about a year ago was found to have mildly elevated intra-ocular pressure (IOP). She has been under my care for almost a year and after receiving three Botox treatments needed only magnesium infusions every 3 weeks. She was still having 2-3 migraines each month, but they were relieved by sumatriptan with naproxen (Treximet). On a recent visit to her ophthalmologist her IOP was higher than usual and she underwent a laser procedure to improve fluid drainage. She reported that it felt as if a balloon was punctured and pressure came out of her eye. The procedure was first done on her right eye where the pressure was higher. Although it’s been only a couple of weeks since the procedure, she feels much improved, without any migraines and without constant mild pressure in her eye, which she was barely aware of until it was gone. Chances are that she will remain susceptible to migraines as they preceded her glaucoma by many years, but she is very likely to have fewer and milder migraines. She may also need to continue intravenous infusions of magnesium because she has a documented severe magnesium deficiency (her RBC magnesium level was 3.7 with the normal range of 4.2 to 6.8), which did not respond to oral magnesium supplements.

The main point of her story is that migraines of long duration can be made worse by a new trigger, such as slow increase in the eye pressure. It is a general rule we teach our neurology residents – if headaches worsen for no obvious reason, search for possible new causes. Another patient who confirmed this rule was a woman who did very well for several years with Botox injections, but then one treatment provided much less relief. Despite the fact that she had no new symptoms or neurological findings, I obtained an MRI scan. Unfortunately, it showed metastatic brain cancer, which originated from undiagnosed breast cancer. Such cases of worsening headaches without other new symptoms of a serious underlying problem are very rare, but require constant vigilance because the temptation is to attribute worsening of migraines to stress, hormones, weather, and other triggers. On the other hand, this needs to be balanced against getting an MRI scan after each unusually severe attack or an increase in headache frequency.

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Many chiropractors advertise their success in treating migraine headaches. Norwegian researchers conducted a scientific study of chiropractic manipulation for migraine headaches in 104 patients. They divided patients into three groups: one that received real chiropractic manipulation of the spine, one that received a sham treatment that consisted of just putting pressure over the shoulders and lower back, and one that continued their usual medication. The real and sham chiropractic groups received 12 treatment sessions over 12 weeks and all three groups were followed for a year. After 12 weeks patients in all three study groups reported improvement. However, a year later, only the two chiropractic groups still felt better. On average, they had about four migraine days a month, down from six to eight before the treatment started. Patients who just continued their medications lost all of their improvement and their migraine frequency was back where it was at the baseline.

The results published in the European Journal of Neurology suggest that chiropractic is indeed effective in reducing migraine frequency, however, it also suggests that any hands-on treatment is equally effective. This probably explains the popularity of chiropractic, physical therapy, massage, reflexology, Reiki, energy therapies, Feldenkreis, and all other hands-on treatments.

All these treatments are worth trying, but avoid high velocity adjustments when undergoing chiropractic treatment as it carries a small risk of serious side effects (see this previous post). I would also pick inexpensive treatments and pick therapists you feel a rapport with. The treatment should be pleasant and never painful. You should also combine these therapies with a healthy lifestyle, including a healthy diet, regular sleep, exercise, meditation, and supplements.

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Vitamin C deficiency appears to be more common in people with back pain, according to a study just published in the journal Pain by Canadian researchers. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is important for collagen formation and collagen is one of the main ingredients of ligaments, tendons, and bones. Recent studies have reported that vitamin C deficiency is common in the general population. The authors “hypothesized that lack of vitamin C contributes to poor collagen properties and back pain”. They used nationwide data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003–2004. Information was available for 4,742 individuals older than 20. Low serum vitamin C levels were associated with one and a half times higher prevalence of neck pain and 1.3 times higher prevalence of low back pain, as well as low back pain with pain radiating to below the knee in the preceding three months. Deficiency was also associated with the self-described diagnosis of arthritis or rheumatism and related functional limitations. The authors concluded that the association between vitamin C deficiency and spinal pain warrants further investigation to determine the possible importance of vitamin C in the treatment of back pain patients.

Neck pain is very common in patients with migraine and tension-type headaches, so it is possible that vitamin C could also play a role in the treatment of headaches. My search revealed no studies looking at vitamin C levels in migraine sufferers. It may be worth checking vitamin C levels in those headache patients who do not respond to usual treatments and recommending supplementation to those who are deficient. However, even if I see good responses to vitamin C in my patients, these observations are not going provide true scientific evidence, even if hundreds of my patients report feeling better. This is because besides giving vitamin C, I would continue to recommend regular exercise, healthy diet, meditation, and other vitamins and minerals, all of which could be contributing to improvement. We need a large study to measure vitamin C levels in headache patients, and the deficient patients should be enrolled in a double-blind study to find out if vitamin C can improve different types of headaches.

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Many women are more likely to have migraines around the time of their menstrual period and in some, those migraines can be more severe. Previous studies have determined that women living together often synchronized their menstrual periods. A group of Brazilian researchers decided to compare the frequency of menstrual migraines in women who live together and those who live alone. The results were just published in the journal Headache.

The study looked at female students at a university between the ages of 18 and 30 years, all of whom suffered from migraines. One group of women lived together with two or more other students and the second group lived alone. They were asked to keep a headache diary for three months. The researchers recorded the frequency of headaches, presence of menstrual migraine, intensity of headaches, medications used including contraceptives, and triggering factors such as diet, sleep deprivation, and stress. Half of the women living together had menstrual migraines compared with 17% of women living alone. This finding was not related to the use of a contraceptive, test stress, or sleep deprivation. Women living together also tended to have menstrual cycle at the same time as their roommates.

It was a small study – it had 18 women in each group, so the results are not highly reliable.

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Restless leg syndrome (RLS) has been reported to be more common in patients with migraines. I wrote about this association in a previous post about 4 years ago. Another study, just published in The Journal of Headache and Pain confirms this association.

RLS is a common condition that often goes undiagnosed. This is in part due to the fact that RLS begins in childhood and it often runs in the family, so it is not perceived as an illness.

The new study involved 505 participants receiving outpatient headache treatment. The researchers collected information on experiences of migraine, RLS, sleep quality, anxiety, depression, and demographics. Participants were divided into low-frequency (1–8/month), high-frequency (9–14/month), and chronic (>15/month) headache groups.

Analysis revealed that with an increase in migraine frequency the occurrence of RLS also increased, particularly in those who had migraines with auras. Anxiety and sleep disturbance was also associated with RLS.

Sometimes the diagnosis of RLS is very easy to make – a person who constantly shakes his or her foot, usually has it. However, in some people the excessive leg or body movements occur only in sleep, so the diagnosis is less obvious to the doctor, but not to the bed partner who is constantly kicked and woken up by these movements. One of my patients could not sleep in the same bed with his wife, because he would move and kick her all night long. After he started taking ropinirole, one of the medications for RLS, he reported that he was able to sleep in the same bed with his wife for the first time in 20 years. If the diagnosis is in doubt, an overnight sleep study can confirm the diagnosis.

Unfortunately the person with RLS suffers much more than the bed partner. Moving all night means not getting good quality sleep and being tired all day. Treating RLS leads not only to improved sleep, but also to an overall improvement in the quality of life.

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Functional MRI (fMRI) imaging has been a powerful tool for visualizing processing of information in the brain. This technique is based on the observation that the MRI signal changes with changes in the amount of blood flowing to a particular region of the brain, which correlates with the activity of that brain region. This is a very sophisticated technique that relies on complicated computer algorithms and this is where the problem lies.

A review of the three most popular software processing packages suggested that false-positive results are present in up to 70% of studies, which means up to 40,000 published trials may provide erroneous results. This review was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

fMRI reports often provide tantalizing details about the effect of emotions, thoughts, drugs, etc on the brain. I searched through my posts and found three “Expect relief and you will get it“, “Botox helps headaches, makes you happier“, and “Science of acupuncture“.

This is not to say that all of this research is worthless. However, I would be skeptical of studies that involve a small number of subjects and from centers not known for rigorous scientific research.

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Two leading headache experts, Drs. Richard Lipton and Dawn Buse of the Montefiore Headache clinic gave positive comments on the report published in Pain and described in my recent post. Another headache specialist from Texas, Dr. Deborah Friedman was also quoted about this research report in Neurology Today.

“Acupuncture studies are difficult because the blinding is difficult,” Richard B. Lipton, MD, FAAN, the Edwin S. Lowe professor and vice chair of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said. He noted that even comparisons using sham procedures may not entirely blind the patient to whether he or she is receiving a real treatment in which needles are inserted in the “meridian” — the points where energy is said to flow.“ That said, the authors in their review show that acupuncture is very substantially better than usual care. I think in aggregate these data demonstrate that real acupuncture is very helpful to people with episodic migraine in terms of reducing the number of headache days. My longstanding practice has been to arrange acupuncture for patients who ask for it, but not to recommend it otherwise,” Dr. Lipton said. “This review is going to impact what I do. It’s 22 randomized trials, and the Cochrane review is 150 pages. I think this is an important summary of the best evidence. I think it’s quite positive. I want to make my patients better so the imperfect blinding doesn’t matter.”

Dawn C. Buse, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, also found the review persuasive, while noting that the mechanism by which acupuncture works is unknown and may be influenced by factors other than the procedure itself. “This review demonstrates that acupuncture may be helpful in reducing the frequency of migraine attacks and is likely to be well tolerated when compared to pharmacologic treatment,” she said. “We do not know from this review how patients who incorporate both acupuncture and optimized pharmacologic approaches fare. However, we know from meta-analyses of combined behavioral and pharmacologic approaches to migraine management that the combination is superior to either approach alone both in initial and sustained response.” She added: “Evidence suggests that many additional factors unrelated to acupuncture needling including expectations, beliefs, openness to experience, and the quality of the patient-provider relationship may play important roles in the beneficial effects of acupuncture for a particular patient. In addition, it is likely that patients who participate in and as a result report benefit from acupuncture are people who are interested and open to nonpharmacologic approaches. It is likely a patient who is open to nonpharmacologic approaches may also be a patient who will take a more active role in migraine management.” Dr. Buse noted that this type of patient is likely to have better treatment outcomes, no matter what type of treatment, due to higher levels of self-efficacy and willingness to actively engage in all aspects of treatment such as following treatment recommendations for healthy lifestyle habits, exercising, managing stress and healthy sleep hygiene. “Based upon these findings, it is reasonable to suggest that a patient who is interested and motivated to try acupuncture to manage migraine may benefit,” she told Neurology Today. “There are likely to be few if any side effects or risks to acupuncture, other than time and financial expense since acupuncture may not be covered by insurance. In addition, it may be difficult to advise a patient how to find a provider with proper training, skill, and knowledge to provide successful treatment and to know exactly what successful treatment would entail. The body of literature suggests that combined pharmacologic plus behavioral approaches are superior to either one alone, Dr. Buse noted. It may be therefore wise to recommend that patients who are interested in acupuncture combine it with optimized pharmacologic and behavioral treatments for the best chance of treatment outcome with lasting benefits, she said.

Dr. Lipton echoed that comment. “Acupuncture is one of many nonpharmacologic treatments for migraine,” he said. “The nonpharmacologic interventions include education, helping people identify triggers, some vitamins and herbs that are evidence-based, cognitive-behavior therapy and biofeedback. So my broad comment is that we should not restrict what is in our toolbox and consider a range of non-pharmacologic as well as pharmacologic treatments.”

But another reviewer, Deborah I. Friedman, MD, MPH, FAAN, chief of the division of headache medicine and professor of neurology & neurotherapeutics and ophthalmology at University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas, expressed some reservations about the quality of the data. “Acupuncture is helpful in some patients with episodic migraine, particularly as an ‘add on’ treatment, but the quality of the data from clinical trials is moderate overall. There is a lot of variability in acupuncture technique amongst practitioners,” she said. “Patients who are interested in acupuncture should be referred to reputable practitioners who have had proper training.” She added: “In general, I don’t discourage it, but I rarely suggest it as an option unless the patient asks about it, or if I get the sense that they are interested in natural remedies. I tell my patients that the clinical evidence to support acupuncture treatment for migraine is not strong, with mixed results. However, it is safe and many patients find it useful, particularly those who are attracted to ‘natural’ or non-pharmacological treatments, and those who have not tolerated conventional therapies.” Dr. Friedman said that in the program at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, physical therapists are trained to do dry needling. “It seems to benefit many of our patients with refractory head and neck pain,” she said. “I make it clear to my patients that this is not the same as traditional acupuncture, and encourage them to try it once to see if it helps.”

Dr. Linde, one of the authors of the original report, noted in his comments that the problem of blinding affects the study of many treatments that are not pharmacologic in nature. “While the overall quality of a number of trials is actually quite good, one has to keep in mind that apart from sham-controlled trials acupuncture studies are usually not blind. However, this applies to almost all non-pharmacological treatments.”

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Beta blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal) and timolol (Blocadren) are the oldest drugs for the prevention of migraine headaches. They’ve been used for this indication for the past 50 years. Calcium channel blockers are not as effective and never received FDA approval, but are also used treat migraine headaches. Verapamil is more effective for the prevention of cluster headaches, but is not approved for this indication either. A third category of blood pressure drugs effective for the prevention of migraines are ACE receptor blockers (ARBs) such as candesartan (Atacand) and olmesartan (Benicar) and ACE inhibitors such as losartan (Cozaar).

Main side effects of these drugs tend to be related to lowering of blood pressure and include fatigue and dizziness. This is a major limitation of blood pressure medications when used in migraine sufferers because they tend to be young women with low blood pressure to begin with. Verapamil is also known to cause constipation.

Beta blockers and to a lesser extent calcium channel blockers, have long been reported to cause depression. A new study just published
in the journal Hypertension explored the association between blood pressure drugs and admission to to the hospital for mood disorders (depression and bipolar). The researchers examined a large hospital database of 525,046 patients with follow-up for 5 years. Patients on ACE inhibitors or ARBs had the lowest risk for mood disorder admissions, and compared with this group, those on beta blockers and calcium channel blockers showed higher risk, whereas those on no blood pressure medications and those on diuretics showed no significant difference. The authors concluded that calcium channel blockers and beta blockers may be associated with increased risk of admission for mood disorders, while ACE inhibitors and ARBs blockers may be associated with a decreased risk of mood disorders.

Migraine sufferers are at 2-3 higher risk of mood disorders even if they are not on blood pressure medications and we often see depression and anxiety in many of our patients. This study makes a strong argument for the use of ACE inhibitors and ARBs ahead of other blood pressure medications. Another advantage of these drugs is that they do not slow down the heart rate, which is the case with beta blockers. Slowing of the heart rate often interferes with the ability to exercise and exercise is probably the most effective preventive treatment for migraine headaches.

I should also mention that epilepsy drugs such as topiramate (Topamax) can also cause depression, even with suicidal thoughts. Besides blood pressure and epilepsy drugs, antidepressants is another category of drugs used for the prevention of migraines, but even these medications can sometimes cause or worsen depression. All drugs have other side effects as well and this is why we always advise starting with sleep hygiene, healthy diet, aerobic exercise, meditation, magnesium, and other supplements.

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According to large epidemiological studies, migraine sufferers are 2-3 times more likely to develop depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders than those without migraines. And it is a bidirectional relationship, meaning that those with depression are 2-3 times more likely to develop migraines than those without depression. Cluster headaches, which have at times been referred to as “suicide headaches,” have been suspected to be also associated with depression. Until now, no similar large studies have been conducted in patients with cluster headaches in part because cluster headaches are much less common than migraines.

In a study just published in the journal Neurology, a group of Dutch physicians studied 462 patients with cluster headaches and compared them to 177 control subjects. They evaluated these patients for history of depression during their lifetime, current depression in the midst of a cluster period, and because many cluster attacks occur in sleep, they also looked for sleep disturbances. The results showed that depression was 3 times more likely to occur patients with cluster headaches than in healthy controls. Those with chronic cluster headaches had a higher risk of depression and sleep problems than patients with episodic cluster headaches. Current depression was associated with having active attacks within the preceding month, but this association was only present if the patient also had a sleep disturbance.

The authors concluded that cluster headache patients are three times more likely to develop depression in their life time. However, current depression was in part related to sleep disturbances due to ongoing nocturnal cluster attacks.

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Acupuncture for the treatment of migraines has been studied in dozens of clinical trials. A 2012 study mentioned in a previous blog post described a rigorous trial done in 480 patients with highly positive results. The largest, albeit uncontrolled study was done in Germany and involved over 15,000 patients. A well controlled and randomized study of 960 patients comparing acupuncture with sham acupuncture and drug therapy concluded that “…acupuncture is as effective as drug therapy, but …sham acupuncture is as effective as ‘real’ acupuncture.” and “…acupuncture should be offered to patients who do not respond to prophylactic treatment with drugs, terminate drug treatment because of adverse events or have contraindications to drug treatment.”

Most headache specialists recommend acupuncture to their patients even if they believe it works only through the placebo effect. I’ve been a licensed acupuncturist for the past 30 years, but treat a relatively small number of patients with acupuncture. The main reasons are the fact that insurance companies do not pay for it and that it is too time consuming. In the first study mentioned above, which was performed in China, patients were treated five days a week. The minimum frequency of treatments should be once a week. I often recommend that patients find a non-MD acupuncturist (whose rates are usually lower) who is closer to the patient’s home or work place. Another concern with acupuncture is that while it might help during the treatment, the effect might subside once the treatment is stopped.

A study The persistence of the effects of acupuncture after a course of treatment: A meta-analysis of patients with chronic pain, just published in the journal Pain addresses this question.

A group of researchers from the US and Europe examined a large set of information on individual patients from high quality randomized trials of acupuncture for chronic pain. The chronic pain conditions included musculoskeletal pain (low back, neck and shoulder), osteoarthritis of the knee and headache / migraine. Data on longer-term follow-up were available for 20 trials, which included 6,376 patients. In trials comparing acupuncture to no acupuncture control (wait-list, usual care, etc), the treatment effect diminished by a very small amount after treatment ended. They estimated that 90% of the benefit of acupuncture relative to controls would be sustained at 12 months. For trials comparing acupuncture to sham acupuncture, they observed a higher reduction in effect, suggesting about a 50% diminution at 12 months. They concluded that “The effects of a course of acupuncture treatment for patients with chronic pain do not appear to decrease importantly over 12 months. Patients can generally be reassured that treatment effects persist.” They also suggested that studies of the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture should take these findings into account when considering the time horizon of acupuncture effects and that further research should measure longer term outcomes of acupuncture.

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About 6% of young children suffer from migraine headaches. After puberty, this number triples to 18% in girls and remains at 6% in boys. Several abortive drugs (drugs taken as needed), such as rizatriptan (Maxalt) and zolmitriptan (Zomig) are approved for migraines in children. Only topiramate (Topamax) is approved for children (over the age of 12) for the prevention of migraines. We do use preventive drugs approved for adults in children as well. These are divalproex sodium (Depakote), propranolol (Inderal), and botulinum toxin (Botox). Many other drugs, such as amitriptyline (Elavil), gabapentin (Neurontin), candesartan (Atacand) are used “off label”, meaning that they are not FDA-approved for migraines in adults or children. One of the reasons that more drugs are not approved specifically for children is the difficulty in conducting research in kids. Their are migraines are usually shorter in duration and often stop occurring for long periods of time without treatment.

A large multi-center 24-week study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the efficacy of topiramate, amitriptyline and placebo in children between the ages of 8 and 17. It was a double-blind study with neither the children and their parents nor the doctors being aware of who was getting which drug or placebo. The study showed no statistically significant difference among the three groups. The main outcome measure was a 50% or higher reduction of headache days. Placebo achieved this result in 61% of children, while this number was 52% for those on amitriptyline and 55% on topiramate. Not surprisingly, side effects were much more common in children taking medications than placebo. Fatigue and dry mouth were the most common side effects from amitriptyline, while topiramate caused mostly tingling and weight loss. Serious side effects occurred in four – three kids on amitriptyline had a serious mood disorder and one on topiramate attempted suicide.

This study did not prove that amitriptyline and topiramate are ineffective since they did help half of the children they were given to, however the placebo worked at least as well. These findings are not surprising since placebo has a powerful effect, which is often more pronounced in children and because children’s migraines often stop on their own. Even in adults, placebo effect has often made clinical trials, particularly in migraines, very difficult. It took a couple of attempts to prove that Botox prevents migraines better than placebo, again not because Botox was ineffective, but because placebo also worked well.

The initial approach to treating migraines in children and adults should always involve looking for modifiable triggers, such as sleep schedule, regular meals with healthy food, elimination of caffeine and sugar, regular exercise, sleep hygiene, meditation or biofeedback, and so on. Our second step is trying supplements such as magnesium (which sometimes is given intravenously because of poor absorption of pills) and CoQ10, which have been proven to be effective both in children and adults. Other, less proven supplements, such as riboflavin, feverfew, and boswellia are also worth trying before starting a daily preventive medication. At the same time, since migraine often causes severe pain, we often prescribe abortive migraine medications, such as sumatriptan or rizatriptan, which are often more effective than ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

It is considered unethical for doctors to prescribe placebo, although we do sometimes prescribe very mild drugs in a small dose (cyproheptadine is one such drug), which is almost the same as prescribing a placebo.

An interesting study of placebo in patients with low back pain was just published in the journal Pain . One group was given the usual treatment and the other received the usual treatment as well as a placebo pill, but they were told that they are being given a placebo. The group that knowingly took placebo had a significant reduction in pain and disability. After three weeks of this trial, the first group was also given a placebo pill and they also had a significant drop in pain and disability. It is possible that the effect is just due to the act of taking a pill, which subconsciously sends a message to the brain that something is being done to fix the problem.

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Medical marijuana was legalized in New York in February of this year. Since then, I’ve prescribed it to over 30 patients and about a third of them have found it to be effective. We are planning an observational study to determine which of the three approved types (inhaled, sublingual, oral) and what ratio of active ingredients (THC/CBD) are preferred by migraine sufferers. Doctors who prescribe medical marijuana do have to take an online training course, but the course does not teach about the optimal use because no one has researched this question. There are also regulatory issues to deal with.

Several sets of guidelines have been published by various medical organizations addressing the proper use of medical marijuana, other than dosing and route of administration. Here are some of the recommendations with my comments:

“The doctor should adhere to current standards of practice and comply with state laws, rules and regulations, which may specify conditions for which a patient may quality.”
Migraine is not one of the conditions listed specifically, but it is often accompanied by neuropathic pain, which is listed.

“The doctor’s office should not be located at a marijuana dispensary or cultivation center. The doctor should not receive financial compensation from or hold a financial interest in marijuana-related businesses or be affiliated with them in any way.”
This one is easy for us.

“The physician should not use marijuana either medicinally or recreationally while actively engaged in the practice of medicine.”
I’ve never tried it.

“There should be an established doctor-patient relationship before the doctor considers the use of medical marijuana.”
I prescribe it only to our established patients.

“The doctor should do a physical exam and gather health history, including documentation of previous therapies used by the patient and information on any personal or family history of substance abuse, mental illness or psychotic disorders. The diagnosis should justify the consideration of medical marijuana.”
All of our patients undergo a thorough evaluation.

“The doctor should review other treatment options. The known benefits and risks of marijuana should be presented, along with the warning that, unlike with FDA-approved drugs, there is variability and lack of standardization in marijuana preparation.”
We use medical marijuana only after other non-drug and drug treatments fail.

“If the medical marijuana is chosen, a specific treatment plan for a limited period of time should be agreed on, with details documented in the medical record. The doctor should instruct the patient not to drive or operate heavy machinery while using marijuana.”
Yes, I do that.

“The patient should be seen for follow-up visits to monitor for efficacy and side effects of medical marijuana.”
This is a standard practice with any treatment.

“Patients with a history of mental health problems, substance abuse or addiction should be referred for further evaluation as needed.”
I typically avoid prescribing medical marijuana to such patients.

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We are big proponents of non-drug treatments, including a variety of vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. However, potential liver damage by butterbur is why we do not recommend this supplement, even though I was one of the participants in the clinical trial that showed it to be effective in preventing migraines. I also cautioned about risks of some Ayurvedic medications.

A recent report in Hepatology, a journal devoted to liver diseases, suggests that 20% of all cases of liver damage are due to herbal and dietary supplements. The main culprits were anabolic steroids (these are banned in professional sports, but are widely used for muscle building), green tea extract, and supplements with multiple ingredients. Anabolic steroids cause prolonged, but not serious liver injury, which resolves when the supplement is stopped. Green tea extract and many other products cause acute liver damage, similar to that seen in hepatitis. The majority of cases of liver injury are due to products that contain multiple ingredients, which makes it difficult to figure out which of the supplements is responsible. Unfortunately, non-prescription supplements are not regulated by the government. This is mostly because it is a $37 billion dollars a year industry with a powerful lobby in Washington. The authors conclude their report by saying that “the ultimate goal should be to prohibit or more closely regulate potentially injurious ingredients and thus promote public safety.”

Until these products come under FDA’s supervision, you should buy only products made by reputable American and German companies. Germany tightly regulates their supplement industry, so if a product is sold in Germany (and none of the butterbur products are approved there or in Great Britain), it is probably safe to take. Do not buy products made in China where corruption has led to many scandals related to the quality of supplements, drugs, food, and environmental pollution.

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Nausea is a very common symptom that accompanies migraine attacks. Effective treatment of migraine with a drug like sumatriptan often stops the headache, nausea, and other associated symptoms. However, sometimes pain subsides, while nausea does not, or nausea is much more bothersome than the headache. Nausea can also be a side effect of the most effective injectable migraine drug, dihydroergotamine (DHE-45). We often administer this drug in our office after other injectable drugs (magnesium, sumatriptan, ketorolac, dexamethasone, etc) fail. If nausea is already present, we will always give an intravenous injection of a nausea drug such as ondansetron (Zofran) or metoclopramide (Reglan) before giving DHE. Sometimes these drugs are ineffective in preventing nausea and vomiting induced by DHE and we have to look for other options.

Phenothiazine family of drugs, including prochlorperazine (Compazine), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), and promethazine (Phenergan) are very old and effective anti-nausea drugs. However, they have a potential for a rare but devastating side effect, which consists of persistent involuntary movements of the face (grimacing and lip smacking) and body. The onset of this side effect can be delayed, which is why it is called tardive dyskinesia. It is not unusual for these drugs to cause an immediate severe and very unpleasant restlessness (akathisia), which patients sometimes describe as wanting to crawl out of one’s skin. Metoclopramide (Reglan) can also cause these side effects, but less often.

Ondansetron (Zofran) does not cause any such side effects and should be the preferred drug for nausea of migraine, although it is only approved for nausea caused by chemotherapy or radiation and for post-surgical nausea. Since it has become generic and inexpensive, it can be used for other causes of nausea, including migraines. It is available as an injection or as a tablet.

Aprepitant (Emend) is an anti-nausea drug that has a totally different mechanism of action than the medications described above, so it is possible that it can help when other drugs do not or when other drugs cause side effects.

A study just published in Neurology by Dr. Denise Chou and her colleagues describes the use of oral aprepitant in the treatment of DHE-induced nausea in hospitalized patients.

The authors reviewed hourly diary data and clinical notes of patients admitted to the hospital for the treatment of refractory migraine headaches (status migrainosus) with DHE infusions between 2011 and 2015.

They identified 74 such patients, of whom 24 had daily diaries. In 36 of 57 cases in which aprepitant was given, there was a 50% reduction in the number of other anti-nausea medications given to patients. Of 57 patients, 52 reported that the addition of aprepitant improved nausea. Among 21 of 24 patients with hourly diary data, nausea scores were reduced. In all 12 patients with vomiting aprepitant stopped it. Aprepitant was well tolerated and caused no side effects.

The authors concluded that aprepitant can be effective in the treatment of refractory DHE-induced nausea and vomiting. They also suggested that perhaps this drug could be used for nausea of migraine even when DHE is not given. The only problem, and it is a very big problem, is the cost. This drug is not going to be available in a generic form until 2018. A single capsule of Emend costs $105 with a coupon you can get on Without a coupon, it is $145. A single vial for injection costs $345, so we are not going to use this drug for nausea due to migraine or DHE for at least two years, when cheaper generic copies become available.

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Hypothyroidism, or under-active thyroid is known to cause headaches or worsen pre-existent migraines. Correcting this deficiency with medications such as Synthroid or Armour Thyroid often improves headaches.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine tried to determine if having headaches made one more prone to developing hypothyroidism. They examined 8,412 healthy people and checked their thyroid function every 3 years over a 20 year period. They excluded from the group people with past thyroid disease or abnormal thyroid function tests at the first office visit. The diagnosis of a headache disorder was established based on person’s report of “frequent headaches,” by the use of any headache-specific medication, or a physician’s diagnosis of a headache disorder. They also recorded age, sex, body mass index, income, smoking, narcotic use, and medicines that could cause thyroid dysfunction.

Headache disorders were present in about 26% of the population and new onset hypothyroidism developed in 7%. Those who had a headache disorder had a slightly higher risk (1.2 times) of developing hypothyroidism. The researchers concluded that headache disorders may be associated with increased risk for the development of new onset hypothyroidism. These results were published in Headache.

One of my colleagues tells an embarrassing story of his wife’s headaches. She developed them after giving birth to their child, so he attributed them to stress and lack of sleep. When headaches persisted she went to her primary care doctor who discovered that she had an underactive thyroid. The headaches promptly went away with thyroid medicine.

Besides headaches, low thyroid function can cause weight gain, fatigue, constipation, muscle cramps, intolerance of cold, dryness of the skin, memory and concentration difficulties. Many of these symptoms also occur with magnesium deficiency, so both RBC magnesium and thyroid function tests (along with vitamin B12, vitamin D, and routine tests) need to be checked when headaches worsen or new ones develop.

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Migraine with aura is known to be associated with an increased risk of diseases of arteries, such as strokes, heart attacks and diseases of peripheral blood vessels. This risk is further increased by estrogen-containing contraceptives.

A new study by Taiwanese neurologists suggests that migraine with aura also carries a higher risk of blood clots forming in the veins, so called venous thrombosis or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Venous thrombosis is more likely to occur in obese, people with cancer, smokers, women on birth control pills, and those who are bedridden or sit for a long time, like on a long airplane ride. According to this new study, having migraines with aura increases the risk of this condition by two and half times.

DVT, which most commonly occurs in a deep vein in a leg, can completely resolve on its own without any residual effects. However, it can also cause long-term swelling and poor circulation in the leg and in about 10% of cases, a piece of the blood clot can break off and be carried into the lung. This is called pulmonary embolus and it is fatal in 10% of patients. DVT requires urgent treatment with blood thinners, which can prevent pulmonary emboli.

So, it is important to recognize symptoms of DVT. These include swelling in a leg or an arm, pain or tenderness in the leg when standing or walking, warmth in the area that is swollen or hurts, redness of the skin, and visible enlargement of the veins in the leg or arm.

Symptoms of pulmonary embolus are sudden shortness of breath or cough, rapid breathing, chest pain, back pain, profuse sweating, lightheadedness, and passing out.

Because blood clot can damage valves inside the vein some people develop a post-thrombotic syndrome, which can consist of pain, persistent swelling, darkened skin color, skin sores and varicose veins (enlarged and tortuous veins that sometimes can be seen under the skin).

To reduce the risk of both arterial and venous complications one needs to stop smoking, exercise regularly, maintain normal weight, blood pressure and blood sugar, avoid estrogen-containing contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, and avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time. Obviously, these measures apply to everyone, but they are particularly crucial for those with migraine with aura.

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One of the most common problems with Botox injections given for chronic migraines is that doctors use the standard protocol without adjusting the dose. One of my patients is an 83 year old woman with chronic migraines who has done exceptionally well with Botox injections with no side effects for the past 16 years. She recently started living in Florida during the winter and had Botox injections given by a local doctor. I provided her with a copy of the injection sites and the total dose, which was 65 units given into 20 sites in the forehead and temples. Her Florida neurologist insisted on giving her the standard 31 injections with 155 units all around the head, neck and shoulders. The result was that she developed drooping of her eyelids and pain and weakness of her neck. It defies common sense to inject a small woman who weighs 90 lbs with the same amount of Botox as a 200-lbs man.

Sticking strictly to the protocol prevents many doctors from addressing clenching and grinding of the teeth (TMJ syndrome), which often worsens migraines. Injecting Botox into the masseter muscles (chewing muscles at the corner of the lower jaw) can have a dramatic effect on TMJ pain and migraines. Other patients may need additional injections into the scalp or upper back, depending on where the pain is felt. Since Botox comes only in 100 and 200 unit vials, if the insurance company approves Botox, it sends us 200 units. Instead of discarding the remaining 45 units, we usually give additional injections into the areas of pain that may not be included in the standard protocol.

Giving injections every 3 months or even every 12 weeks works well for many patients. However, about a quarter of my migraine patients find that the effect of Botox lasts only 10 weeks and in a small number , even less than 10 weeks. Fortunately, some insurance companies allow Botox to be administered every 10 weeks, but many do not. Some even limit injections to every 3 months, and not a day earlier, even though the clinical trials that led to the FDA approval involved giving injections every 12 weeks. Having a week or two of worsening migraines can eliminate the cumulative effect we see with repeated treatments. That is, each subsequent Botox treatment provides better relief than the previous one. This may not the case if headaches worsen before the next treatment is given.

Cosmetic concerns are not trivial since Botox injections can make you look strange – as if you are always surprised or look sinister with the ends of your eyebrows always lifted. This can be easily avoided by injecting a very small amount of Botox into the appropriate muscles above the ends of the eyebrows or a little beyond them. In some patients this can be predicted before the first treatment by looking at the lines seen with lifting of the eyebrows. In others, it becomes apparent only after the first treatment. If the appearance is very unappealing, we ask the patient to return to get two small additional injections for which we do not charge.

To minimize bruising and pain we use very thin needles. A 30-gauge needle is used most often, however an even thinner, 33-gauge needle is also available, but is rarely used (higher number indicates a thinner needle). We recommend using a 33-gauge needles, at least for the forehead, where injections tend to be more painful and where bruising, if it happens, is very visible.

Many dermatologists and plastic surgeons tell their patients not to bend down or do anything strenuous to avoid movement of Botox which may lead to drooping of the eyelids. There is no theoretical or practical evidence for this restriction. Once injected, Botox does not move around freely but stays in the injected area. In my 22 years of injecting Botox, I’ve treated thousands of headache sufferers and fewer than 1% of patients developed drooping eyelids and none were related to bending or any other activities. Drooping is more common in older patients, is always reversible within days or weeks, and sometimes can be relieved by eye drops (aproclonidine).

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Medical marijuana reduces the number of prescriptions written by doctors, according to a recent study published in Health Affairs. The researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens looked at all prescriptions filled by Medicare participants over a four year period for nine conditions for which medical marijuana is used for. These included anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity. They compared 17 states and Washington, DC where medical marijuana was legalized with those where it was not. In states with legalized medical marijuana the number of prescriptions dropped by 0.5% providing estimated savings of $165 million a year. Of all approved indications, relief of pain was by far the most common reason medical marijuana was prescribed for. This was a much more dramatic effect than the researchers anticipated. They expected that the mostly elderly patients on Medicare would be more resistant to the idea of using marijuana than younger people.

In a February post I mentioned that I started prescribing medical marijuana to my patients with migraine headaches who also have neuropathic pain as part of their headache. While medical marijuana is not approved for migraines per se, it is approved for neuropathic (i.e nerve-related pain), which many migraine sufferers do have. Burning or stabbing pain indicates the presence of neuropathic pain. So far, I’ve prescribed medical marijuana to about two dozen patients and as expected, the results are mixed. It works well for some, but not other. Most commonly, patients who’ve had positive experience with recreational marijuana tend to request medical marijuana and they tend to do better than those who’ve never tried it.

Research on medical marijuana is complicated by the fact that there is no standard formulation, which means that there is wide variation in the strains of the plant with varying amounts of active and inactive ingredients. In New York State medical marijuana can be ingested, inhaled through a vaporizer or placed under the tongue. We also have various ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which produce different results. Nevertheless, we do plan to do an observational study of 100 migraine sufferers who also have neuropathic pain. We hope to get an indication as to what route of administration and what THC/CBD ratio work best for migraine patients.

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CGRP migraine drugs remain on track to get an approval from the FDA within two years. My first post on these drugs appeared in 2007. The first product in this family was tested for the prevention and acute treatment of migraines. It reached the final phase 3 trials and was found to be very effective and safe, but a few patients developed minor liver abnormalities on blood tests. In view of these blood test abnormalities, the manufacturer, Merck decided against completing the trials. A similar medicine, also in a tablet form, is now being developed by Allergan (maker of Botox) and it appears to be free of liver problems.

CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) is a chemical that is released in the brain during a migraine attack. Four companies are targeting the CGRP molecule in a different way. Instead of taking a pill during an attack or daily to prevent migraines, they are developing monoclonal antibodies which bind to the CGRP molecule or its receptor and block its action. These drugs are given by injection. Three of the companies, Amgen, Eli Lily, and Teva are testing intramuscular injection every month, while the fourth one, Alder is testing intravenous administration every three months. Eli Lily is also testing their compound for the treatment of episodic cluster headaches.

To date, there have been several thousand patients exposed to these monoclonal antibodies in clinical trials. What is most surprising to me is their outstanding safety. The side effects have been infrequent and mild. All four companies are conducting large-scale phase 3 trials, which will hopefully confirm their safety. Based on the previous studies, there is little doubt that these studies will show that the drugs are highly effective in preventing migraines. Unfortunately, it will be at least two years before these truly innovative medications become available.

While I am very excited about getting a new and a very different treatment for migraine and cluster headache sufferers, my enthusiasm is tempered by the potential cost of these drugs. Business experts project the cost to be between $12,000 and $18,000 a year. By comparison, the $6,000 yearly cost of Botox injections seems cheap. Only about 100,000 out of several million chronic migraine sufferers have been treated with Botox since it was approved for migraines 6 years ago. This is in large part due to the difficulties in getting approval from the insurance companies. Besides extensive paper work from the doctor, they require that the patient first try and fail two or three preventive drugs. The new CGRP drugs are likely to be the last option in this chain and will require even more paperwork. The result is likely to be a great underutilization of these breakthrough drugs, just as it has been happening with Botox.

I am not suggesting that these drugs should be cheap since literally billions of dollars will have been spent by the time these drugs receive approval. If the companies cannot make a profit, the investment in research will dry up and fewer breakthrough drugs will be developed. This is why most new treatments are developed in the US and not Europe, where drug costs are controlled by the government. Hopefully, in a few years the cost will drop as it has happened with another family of highly effective migraine drugs, the triptans.

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Vitamin B12 was the subject of an article in the New York Times by Jane Brody entitled, Vitamin B12 as Protection for the Aging Brain. However, she mentions that “insufficient absorption of B12 from foods may even be common among adults aged 26 to 49” and that the advice to take a vitamin B12 supplement may apply to young people as well. This is particularly true for vegans and vegetarians, as well as people with stomach problems and those on PPIs – drugs for ulcers and heartburn, such as Prilosec, Nexium, Aciphex, etc.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause “fatigue, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness and loss of reflexes, which may progress to confusion, depression, memory loss and dementia as the deficiency grows more severe”. Severe deficiency leads to peripheral and central nervous system damage (so called subacute combined degeneration), which eventually becomes irreversible and leads to death.

Jane Brody does not mention that besides Alzheimer’s, other chronic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and cancer are also associated with low vitamin B12 levels. Vitamin B12 with vitamin B6 and folic acid has been shown to help some migraine sufferers

You can ask your doctor to check your vitamin B12 level, but unfortunately it is not reliable. Most laboratories cite as normal blood levels of above 200 or 250, but there are reports of rare cases where severe deficiency is present with a level of 700. I recommend taking a supplement if the level is below 500. In severe cases or in people with stomach problems, a monthly injection is a better choice. Patients can easily self-inject vitamin B12, but it does require a doctor’s prescription. Some of my patients feel the need to inject themselves with vitamin B12 more often than once a month. Whenever they start feeling tired or having other symptoms, they take a shot. Unlike some vitamins, such as B6 and A, vitamin B12 does not cause any negative effects even at high levels. As an oral supplement I usually recommend tablets of methylcobalamin, rather than cyanocobalamin form of vitamin B12 because of better absorption. The usual dose is 1 mg (or 1,000 mcg) daily. If you are deficient and stop taking the supplement, the deficiency can return within a few months.

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Living in areas where fracking takes place doubles the risk of having migraines, as well as fatigue and sinus symptoms. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a water-based method of extracting natural gas from deep under the ground.

Johns Hopkins researchers described these findings in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The study was conducted using questionnaires which were completed by 7,785 adults. Among these people, 1,765, or 23% suffered from migraines, 1,930 people or 25% experienced severe fatigue and 1,850 or 24% had symptoms of chronic sinusitis (three or more months of nasal and sinus symptoms). In the general population the incidence of migraines is about 12%.

Previous studies have discovered an association between fracking and increased risk of premature births, asthma attacks and indoor radon concentrations.

It is unclear how fracking results in these health problems. Some possible explanations include air pollution, odors, noise, bright lights, and heavy truck traffic.

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Three times as many women are afflicted by migraines as men, according to many large studies. However, 6% of men do suffer from migraines and that means 9 million American men. However, in our clinic, instead of 75%, over 90% of patients are women. Men are often dragged into the office by their wife, girlfriend, or mother.

A new study presented at the recent meeting of the American Headache Society confirms this observation. Dr. Anne Scher and her colleagues established that men are less likely to see a doctor and when they do see one, they are less likely than women to be given the diagnosis of migraine. Only 59% of men with migraines were given the correct diagnosis, while this number was 77% for women. This is probably due to the perception of migraine as a disease of women. The reasons for misdiagnosis in both sexes include the notion that every migraine sufferer has to have a visual aura (it is present only in about 20%), or that the headache has to be one-sided, or the person has to have nausea. In fact, all of the typical migraine features do not have to be present. It is sufficient to have nausea and throbbing pain or light sensitivity and inability to function normally, or light and noise sensitivity and one-sided throbbing pain, etc.

Migraines are often misdiagnosed as sinus headaches because in some people migraine is accompanied by a clear nasal discharge or because the pain is localized in the area of sinuses. True sinus headaches are usually accompanied by yellow or green nasal discharge.

Migraines can be also mistaken for tension-type headaches, but tension-type headaches are milder and never severe, not accompanied by nausea and other symptoms, and typically respond to over-the-counter medications.

One type of headaches that is significantly more common in men, is cluster headache. Cluster headaches are also often misdiagnosed as migraine or sinus headache. The name comes from the fact that these headaches occur in clusters – every day for a month or two and then they go away for a year or longer. The pain is extremely intense, always one-sided and localized around the eye, usually accompanied by tearing and runny nose on the side of the headache. These headaches tend to wake the person from sleep, but can occur during the day and last anywhere from half an hour to a few hours. Some of the treatments for cluster headaches are different from those for migraines, so a correct diagnosis is crucial. There are many posts on this blog and an article on our site devoted to cluster headaches, so please do a search if you are interested in learning more.

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Intravenous magnesium relieves acute migraine attacks in patients with magnesium deficiency, which is present in half of migraine sufferers, according to the study we published in 1995 in the journal Clinical Science. Infusions not only treat an acute attack, but also prevent migraines. Oral magnesium supplementation is not as effective and helps less than 50% of patients because some patients do not absorb magnesium. Most people get enough magnesium from food, but some migraine sufferers have a genetic defect which prevents them from absorbing magnesium or a genetic defect that leads to an excessive loss of magnesium through kidneys.

Our experience with thousands of patients suggests that the majority of migraine sufferers who are magnesium deficient do improve with oral supplementation, but about 10% do not. These patients need regular infusions of magnesium and these infusions are often life-changing. Magnesium not only treats and prevents migraines, but also relieves muscle cramps, PMS, palpitations, “brain fog”, and other symptoms.

There are many mentions of magnesium on my blog and on the website, so what prompted another post on this topic is a couple of patients with an unusal experience. I would occasionally see such patients but in the past few weeks, I saw several. These patients tell me that when we give them an infusion of magnesium by “slow push” over 5 minutes they get excellent relief, but when they end up in an emergency room or another doctor’s office where they receive the same amount of magnesium through an intravenous drip over a half an hour or longer, there is no relief.

A likely explanation is that a push results in a high blood level, which overcomes the blood-brain barrier and delivers magnesium into the brain, while during a drip, magnesium level does not increase to a high enough level to reach the brain. Studies have shown that migraineurs not only have a systemic magnesium deficiency, but specifically in their brains. A similar phenomenon has been described with sumatriptan (Imitrex). Researchers discovered that migraine sufferers who did not respond to sumatriptan had a much slower increase in the drug level compared to responders, even though the total amount of the drug absorbed into the blood was the same.

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Recently, a patient of mine reported that cramp bark has significantly improved her menstrual migraines. Cramp bark is a common shrub with red berries. Its bark has been used for over 100 years for muscle cramps, menstrual cramps, fluid retention, and other symptoms. Fortunately, it appears to be very safe and even though no scientific studies have been performed on it, it may be worth trying. I will start recommending it to women with menstrual migraines, menstrual cramping and patients with muscle spasms in their neck and upper back.

The two top herbs I recommend to my migraine patients are feverfew and boswellia. Feverfew has been subjected to scientific studies and seems to help some patients while causing almost no side effects. Boswellia has been reported to help even patients with cluster headaches, but no rigorous studies have been done. However, it is safe and because of its anti-inflammatory properties it can also help joint and muscle aches (see my blog post on Boswellia).

Butterbur, on the other hand is not always safe, so I haven’t been recommending it. Here is one of my blog posts on it.

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Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) with an electrode implanted in the neck is an FDA-approved treatment for depression and epilepsy, when these conditions do not respond to medications. Since antidepressant and anti-epilepsy medications help migraines, I had six patients (four with migraines and two with cluster headaches) treated with VNS. Two of the four chronic migraine patients and both cluster patients had good relief – results that were published in the journal Cephalagia in 2005. This publication led to the development of gammaCore, a device to stimulate the vagus nerve through the skin, without the need for surgical implantation of an electrode. The New York Headache Center participated in one of the earliest studies of this device and the results were encouraging.

An article published in the current issue of Neurology presents the results of another study of gammaCore. In this first double-blind study 59 adults with chronic migraines (15 or more headache days each month) were given either real VNS or sham treatment for two months. After two months they were all given the real treatment for 6 months. The main goal of the study was to examine the safety and tolerability of this treatment, but the researchers also looked at the efficacy by measuring the change in the number of headache days per 28 days and acute medication use.

Both sham and real treatment were well tolerated with most adverse events being mild or moderate and transient. The number of headache days were reduced by 1.4 days in the real and 0.2 days in the sham group. Twenty-seven participants completed the open-label 6-month phase, which suggests that this treatment might work for half of the patients. However, larger sham-controlled studies are needed to prove that this treatment really works. GammaCore is also being tested for the treatment of cluster headaches. Although it has not been definitively proven to be effective, it is already being sold in some European countries.

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Menopause often brings relief to female migraine sufferers. However, many women have worsening of their migraines during the transition. This is thought to be due to the fluctuating levels of estrogen, which is also responsible for menstrual migraines. Steady levels of estrogen during pregnancy and in menopause lead to a dramatic relief of migraines in two out of three women.

A study published in a recent issue of the journal Headache examined the relationship of headache frequency to the stages of menopause. The study looked at 3446 women with migraines with a mean age of 46. Among women who were premenopausal, 8% had high frequency of headaches (10 or more headache days each month), while during perimenopause as well as menopause, 12% of women had high frequency of migraines. This does not contradict the fact that many women stop having migraines in menopause, but it suggests that among those women who continue having migraines, there are more with high frequency of attacks.

By publishing these findings, the authors wanted to draw attention to the fact that many women may need a more aggressive approach to treatment. In women with high frequency of attacks preventive therapies tend to be more effective than abortive ones. These may include magnesium, CoQ10, Boswellia, and other supplements, as well as preventive medications and Botox injections. At the same time, most women may also need to take abortive therapies, such as triptans.

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Several of my patients with trigeminal neuralgia (TN) responded to Botox injection (although some have not). My previous post on this topic four years ago discussed a study involving 40 patients with TN, of whom 68% responded to Botox. Recently, two new cases of TN successfully treated with Botox have been reported and in the past month I’ve treated three additional patients. Two of my patients had excellent relief and one had none.

One of the case reports was presented at the recent meeting of the American Headache Society in San Diego. This was a 65-year-old woman who suffered from very severe electric shock-like pain typical of TN. She did not respond to a variety of medications, including carbamazepine (Tegretol), but did respond to Botox injections. Botox did not eliminate her pain, but the severity of it was reduced by 50% and this significantly improved the quality of her life.

The current issue of Headache contains a report of a 60-year-old man with severe TN who also did not respond to any medications. He did obtain complete relief from Botox injections and Botox has remained effective for over 2 years.

With any new treatment we usually hope to see large double-blind controlled clinical trials and eventually an FDA approval. FDA approval usually compels insurance companies pay for the treatment. Botox injections have received approval for chronic migraines, excessive sweating, twitching of muscles around the eyes (blepharospasm), and several other conditions. Unfortunately, it is not likely that Botox will receive approval for the treatment of TN because it is a relatively rare condition, which will make it difficult to conduct a large blinded trial. Fortunately, the amount of Botox needed to treat TN is much smaller than what is used for migraines, making a little more affordable. We use 100 to 200 units of Botox for chronic migraines (the FDA-approved protocol calls for 155 units injected over 31 sites) and only 20 to 50 units for TN.

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An ENT colleague recently referred to me a patient with very persistent sensation of pressure in her sinuses. She’d had sinus surgery which relieved pain in one of her sinuses, but the pressure sensation persisted. She did not experience much pain, but the pressure was present constantly and was very distracting and upsetting. First we tried intravenous magnesium because her blood test showed a mild deficiency. This did not help and I gave her several acupuncture treatments, which helped only a little and the effect did not last. When she mentioned that sneezing helped for a brief period, I though that intranasal hot pepper extract, capsaicin could help, and in fact it did.

There are several over-the-counter nasal sprays containing capsaicin, but she found that only Ausanil brand was helpful. Other brands include Sinol and SInus Buster. Ausanil is being advertised for both sinus and migraine headaches. There only small studies showing that capsaicin applied into the nostril can relieve migraines and even cluster headaches. A small Italian study showed that if capsaicin is applied into the nostril on the side of the headache it helped, but when applied on the opposite side, it did not.

This is not an easy treatment because it causes severe burning and some people tolerate it well, while other do not. It is certainly safe and inexpensive.

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If you are interested in learning to meditate, but don’t know how to get started, go to Dr. Tara Brach’s website for help. It offers her free weekly podcasts that will guide you through the process. Tara Brach is a psychologist and a buddhist, who after college spent 10 years in an ashram studying yoga and meditation. She has a pleasant voice and her podcasts are full of stories, funny anecdotes and short poems that are sure to inspire you.

My wife and I recently attended Tara Brach’s workshop on “Radical Acceptance” at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. There were frequent sessions of guided meditation as well as exercises and Q & A sessions. Many participants had listened to her podcasts for years and came to hear her in person. One of the questions was, how do you maintain a regular meditation practice? Tara’s answer was to meditate daily. If you do not have time for a 20 or 30-minute session, do it for a minute or two. I would also recommend reading books such as Living Fully by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche, Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein, Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Tara’s two excellent books, Radical Acceptance and True Refuge.

Meditation can bring you relief of anxiety, migraine headaches, and many medical conditions that are made worse by stress. It can also make your life more enjoyable.

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It was a great privilege to know Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author of 40 books, university professor, and most importantly, a tireless campaigner for human rights.

Mr. Wiesel suffered from severe daily migraines. Both of his parents and many members of his extended family suffered from headaches. The only year in his life without headaches was when he was in Auschwitz. He was highly functional with a very busy schedule despite his chronic migraines. I invited him to speak about his headaches at the First International Headache Summit held in Tel-Aviv, Israel, on November 16, 2008 and he generously agreed (here is a photo from the event). This is an excerpt from his presentation which was published in the journal Headache:

“Thank you very much, Dr. Mauskop. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, and when I consider a topic I tend to return to my primary source: do we find headaches in Scripture? Perhaps you remember the prophet Elishah, a very special man, the disciple of Elijah. The woman who was his host in a certain village was barren, and she was embarrassed to tell him this. Elishah’s servant knew of her distress, however, and he so informed the prophet whom he served. Elishah blessed her with a son. The son grew, and one day when he was in the fields with his father, he cried out, “My head, my head. I have a headache.” Thus, for the first time, headache enters old religious texts. The father asked his servants to bring the boy home, where he suddenly died. His mother ran to the prophet, to Elisha, and said, “I asked you for a living son . . . not for a dead one.” At that point we first bear literary witness to the act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The prophet administered it resuscitation, and the boy lived once again.
When one poses a question, the Talmud may offer what amounts to advice. What happens if a person has a headache? What should he do? You or I would answer, Go to a doctor, but the Talmud advises, Go study Torah. Now, why should a person who has a headache go and study? Is it because when he or she studies, they forget their headache? or maybe they get a different headache. Everything is possible.
Now, I must tell you, Dr. Mauskop, you kindly asked me to come and see you for my headaches. I didn’t come because I did not want to embarrass you, to cause you to have to admit failure, because nothing has ever helped me. I began having headaches—I’m speaking to you as a patient—at age 7. At age 7, I already was taking pills for headache; everybody in my family was! My mother had headaches; my father had headaches; my grandfather had headaches. So I lived with headaches from my childhood on.
But then something bizarre happened: the day I entered Auschwitz, the headaches disappeared. I studied what you told me about pressure, about headaches as the result of pressure. But that seemed a contradiction. If ever I had pressure, it was there. In the camp. Every moment was pressure. But the headaches disappeared.
The moment I arrived at the first orphanage in France, after Liberation, they came back. The first doctor I went to I saw for my headaches. They are still with me. And they are not rare; they are still frequent. I get up every day with a headache, and once a week, I have what I call the “deluxe” version, a real headache. My problem is if I have to give a lecture that day—and I teach full time—or that evening, what do I do? If I take strong pills, I’m afraid it could affect my thought processes. I try to cope. I didn’t come to see you. I thought, why should I give you pain by realizing that you cannot help my own?
At my age, and rather suddenly, I’ve developed other kinds of pains that I didn’t have before. Back pains, hand pains. So I’ve been to all kinds of doctors for these various woes, and—I don’t have to tell you—the interesting part is, usually when you have a new pain, the old pain recedes. Not in my case. My headache is so faithful to me; it’s so loyal that it remains present always.
I got up this morning with a very, very bad headache. So, I said to my headache, “You won’t win.” I speak to my headache; I personalize it. I say, “I know who you are, and I know what you want, and it won’t work.” And the pain says to me, “Let’s see, Wiesel.” And so we fight.
Through my studies, I’ve discovered that many writers and artists and painters have suffered from headaches, and they have had their own distinctive methods of coping. Dumas used to place a wet cloth on his forehead. Hemingway used to do write standing, because this seemed to afford some relief. Many of the great writers had headaches. Perhaps writers have headaches because they are afraid of critics.
And to this day I have not found a way of handling my own headache except in my own fashion, which is to live with it. It hasn’t slowed down my work. I teach full-time, and I am a very obsessive professor. In some 40 years, I don’t think I’ve ever given the same course twice. I want to be the best student in the class. That’s how I learn and grow with the students. And all that with my constant companion, this headache.
Now maybe once I’ve finished, you will have a session and say, “Now what can we do for Elie Wiesel’s headaches?” But don’t bother; even if you were to try, I don’t think you could help. But perhaps you can use my example to encourage your patients. Patients will come to you and say, “Why can’t you help me?” And you can say, “Look. He couldn’t get cured, and nevertheless he works. He goes on, functioning, studying, teaching.”
Maybe psychologically I need the headaches to work? I’m sure some of you have had that idea in mind. Maybe he needs the added challenge . . . this extra burden. In that case, why did I have headaches at age 7? And 8 . . . 9 . . . 10? Hereditary? Sure. Pressure? No. What pressure? School pressure? I was a good student.
So do I need these headaches? Personally, I think not. I think I could work as well without them. Are they part of me? Are they part of my psyche? Is my headache part of who I am? If so, what a terrible analysis . . . what a terrible definition of self! Am I my own pain?
You know Descartes, the philosopher. As a young man I admired him because he was one of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages, helping us emerge from the darkness. He came out with the formula, and I’m sure most of you recall it from school, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. And later I discovered about Descartes things I didn’t admire that much. He had written a book on science. When he read about the tragic fate of Galileo, he was so afraid of the Inquisition that he didn’t publish his book. Hey, Descartes, that’s no way to behave. You, the philosopher, should be afraid of the tormentor? But he was. So I began reanalyzing, reevaluating Descartes, and concluding that maybe he’s wrong even with his cogito ergo sum! I’m a student of the Talmud. I encourage students to ask questions . . . even to question the questions. And so I thought, Maybe he’s wrong.
I think he is. I would say, “I think, therefore you are.” My thought must involve you. My life must involve you. I am who I am, not because of myself, but because of my attitude towards you. One also could say, “You think, therefore I am.” Your thought challenges mine. Your existence is a challenge to mine. Your life is maybe a question . . . and an answer in relation to my own. Alone, who are we? Nobody is alone.
So, how might I use even the pain of headache for the benefit of someone else? How can I do that? By doing my work, sure. So I go on; I’m a writer; I’m a teacher; I go around the world trying to do my best to improve some conditions here and there, always failing—but it doesn’t matter . . . I will go on trying.
One last thing to add, something perhaps to tell your patients: when a person says, Leave me alone, I have a headache, it’s wrong. Never leave me alone. Never think that you bother me. I may have the worst headache in my life, but if someone needs me, I have no right to say, “But I have a headache.” That is not a sufficient excuse.”

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Tremor of the hands is usually a benign condition. It is even called, benign essential tremor or, if it runs in the family, benign familial tremor. Patients with tremor are twice as likely to have migraines, so this is why I am writing about it. Tremor is also a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, but these two types of tremor can be easily differentiated. Parkinsonian tremor is a resting tremor, which means that hands shake at rest, while essential tremor occurs in action, like when trying to drink from a cup.

Even though it is benign, essential tremor can be incapacitating and socially embarrassing. Fortunately, in most people it responds to treatment. We usually start with propranolol (Inderal), a drug that belongs to the beta-blocker family, which is used for the treatment of high blood pressure and migraines. If propranolol or another beta-blocker is ineffective or causes side effects (due to low blood pressure or slow pulse), tremor can be treated with epilepsy drugs such as primidone (Mysoline), gabapentin (Neurontin), zonisamide (Zonegran), or an alpha-2 agonist such as clonidine (Catapres), which is a different type of blood pressure medicine.

In rare cases, tremor affects not hands but the voice. I recently treated such a patient. He tried some medications, but when they did not help, he was given Botox injections into the vocal cords. This reduced the tremulousness of his voice, but only partially. Botox can also help with hand tremor, but because there are so many small muscles involved, the results are not very good. Taking careful history revealed that this patient tried only 10 mg of propranolol and when it did not help, he stopped it. I decided to give it another try and built up the dose to 30 mg, which provided complete relief without any side effects. For migraines, we usually go up to 60 to 120 mg of propranolol, but some patients need and tolerate even higher doses.

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A new report presented at the last annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society in San Diego showed that post-concussion symptoms can be helped by an intravenous infusion of magnesium.

Doctors at the department of neurology at UCLA described six patients with a post-concussion syndrome, who were given an infusion of 2 grams of magnesium sulfate. Three out of six had a significant improvement of their headaches and all had improvement in at least one of the following symptoms: concentration, mood, insomnia, memory, and dizziness.

This was a small study, but it is consistent with other studies that show a drop in the magnesium level following a concussion and also studies in animals that show beneficial effects of magnesium following a head trauma.

Our studies have shown that intravenous magnesium can relieve migraine and cluster headaches in a significant proportion of patients.

Considering how safe intravenous magnesium is and how devastating the effect of a concussion can be, it makes sense to give all patients with a post-concussion syndrome if not an intravenous infusion, at least an oral supplement. I usually recommend 400 mg of magnesium glycinate, which should be taken with food. For faster and more reliable effect, we routinely give patients with migraines, cluster, and post-concussion headaches an infusion of magnesium. Patients who do not absorb or do not tolerate (it can cause diarrhea) oral magnesium, come in to for monthly infusions.

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Should you sleep on the right or on the left side? Researchers led by Dr. Helene Benveniste of Stony Brook University discovered that sleeping on the right side provides better drainage of toxins out of the brain, at least in rats. She presented their findings at the meeting of the American Headache Society in San Diego earlier this month.

The lymphatic system, which has been long known to exist throughout the body, was only recently discovered in the brain. It is called a glymphatic system because brain’s glial cells form this network of draining channels. According to the latest studies, our brain does housekeeping by removing waste products when we are asleep. Insomnia has been associated not only with more frequent migraine headaches, but also with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, which is thought to be at least in part due to accumulation of waste products in brain cells.

When you google sleep positions, many sites recommend sleeping on the left side, but no scientific studies have been done to see which position is more beneficial. The rat study mentioned above suggests that sleeping on either side is better than sleeping on your back or on the stomach. Hopefully, Dr. Benveniste and her colleagues will conduct studies in humans, so that we know how to sleep. For now, whatever position you sleep in, try to get enough sleep every night.

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Medication overuse headache (MOH), which is sometimes called rebound headache, is included in the International Classification of Headache Disorders. However, this is one of several headache types whose existence is still debated. After years of indocrination, most neurologists and headache specialists strongly believe that every drug taken for acute treatment of headaches can cause MOH. However, we have good evidence only for caffeine and for opioid (narcotic) pain medications. It is far from proven in case of triptans (sumatriptan or Imitrex, and other) or NSAIDs (ibuprofen or Advil, naproxen or Aleve, and other).

Last week, I attended the annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society (AHS) and was happy to see that despite an almost universal acceptance of the diagnosis of MOH, the organizers set up a debate on the existence of MOH. The debaters included two top experts in the field, Drs. Richard Lipton of Montefiore Headache Clinic in the Bronx and Ann Scher of the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda. Dr. Lipton and Scher have collaborated on many research projects and have published many important articles on headaches together, so the debate was friendly and based on facts.

Dr. Scher quoted the American Council on Headache Education, an affiliate of the AHS:

“It is important to know that intake of medications for acute treatment should be limited to less than twice a week. Some methods which can prevent the onset of medication overuse headache include following instructions on how to take medications, avoid use of opioid medications and butalbital combination medications and limit use of simple analgesics to less than 15 days a month and triptans less than 10 days a month”.

And then she posed a question: How many are being harmed vs helped by this advice?

While Dr. Lipton quoted scientific articles supporting the existence of MOH, Dr. Scher’s conclusions reflected my clinical experience that MOH is not a proven entity as it relates to triptans and NSAIDs. I see it only in those who overuse caffeine or caffeine-containing drugs (Excedrin, Fioricet, etc) or narcotic pain killers (Percocet or oxycodone, Vicodin or hydrocodone, and other).

Dr. Scher concluded that, “Since the existence of MOH has not been proven (and may be non-provable for practical purposes), one is obligated to remain agnostic about this entity. And the corollary is that there is no evidence that undertreating will prevent headache frequency progression and may harm more people than help”.

In fact, the same headache experts who limit abortive therapies to twice a week, recommend aggressive abortive therapy for migraines because undertreatment of episodic migraine can lead to its transformation into chronic migraine.

She also indicated that “Quality of evidence for medication withdrawal alone as treatment for MOH is poor” and “Medication withdrawal alone is not clearly better than doing nothing and may be worse”. Meaning that in addition to withdrawal of the acute medication, patients should be given prophylactic treatment.

Studies indicate that after one year, 60% and after two years, 70% of those with chronic migraines (15 or more headache days in a month) revert to episodic ones (less than 15 headache days a month) regardless of treatment. In 15% headaches decrease to less than one a week. This is because fortunately, migraines often improve with time on their own.

We have evidence that Botox injections and some preventive medications can make discontinuation of acute medications easier. We always try to stop Fioricet (butalbital, acetaminophen, and caffeine), Fiorinal (butalbital, aspirin, and caffeine), Excedrin (caffeine, acetaminophen, aspirin) with the help of regular aerobic exercise, biofeedback or meditation, magnesium and other supplements, Botox injections, and sometimes preventive medications.

However, we do have several dozen patients whose headaches are controlled by the daily intake of triptans. These patients have tried given prophylactic medications, Botox injections and other treatments, but find that only triptans provide good relief and eliminate migraine-related disability. The most commented on post on this blog (with 175 comments to date) is one on the daily use of triptans.

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Chronic migraine afflicts more than 4 million Americans, but shockingly less than 5% of them receive appropriate care, according to a new study just published in the journal Headache.

Chronic migraine sufferers experience headaches on more than half of the days and some, every day. These headaches are much more disabling than episodic migraines (those occurring on less than half of the days).

The study established three barriers to an effective treatment of this very common and very disabling condition. The first barrier was being able to see a specialist for a consultation. Those patients who were more likely to get a consultation were older, had more severe migraine symptoms, more disability, and had health insurance.

The second barrier is getting a correct diagnosis. Consulting a specialist rather than a primary care provider, being a female and having more severe migraines increased the odds of a correct diagnosis.

The third barrier was getting proper treatment with preventive medications and Botox injections and acute treatment with triptans and prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Only 56 (4.5%) out of the 1254 patients evaluated in the study overcame all three barriers and were given appropriate treatment. In a previous study, the same authors found that 26% of patients with episodic migraines traversed all three barriers, which means that only one of of four of more then 30 million Americans with episodic migraines received proper treatment.

The first barrier is possibly the most difficult to eliminate. Despite the fact that the Obamacare provided millions of people with insurance, access to doctors has improved only marginally. A sudden increase in the number of insured was not matched by an increase in the number of doctors. The main bottleneck is not the number of doctors who graduate from medical schools, but the number of residency training positions. Residency training is subsidized by Medicare, which has not increased the number of residencies. We do have a growing number of nurse practitioners and other non-physician healthcare providers who will hopefully make the shortage of doctors less acute. However, this study suggests that migraine sufferers need to see a specialist to receive a correct diagnosis. This does not necessarily mean a physician – we have three nurse practitioners who specialize in treating headaches and who are highly qualified to diagnose and treat various headache disorders.

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Zecuity, a transdermal sumatriptan patch has been reported to cause skin burns and scarring, according to the FDA. The FDA has started an investigation, but the manufacturer, Teva Pharmaceuticals has decided to pull the product off the market.

This is not a major loss for migraine sufferers since we now have four other ways to deliver sumatriptan (Imitrex) – tablet, injection, nasal spray, and nasal powder.

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Hemiplegic and basilar migraine are rare types of migraine. Hemiplegic migraine is accompanied by a paralysis of one side of the body. Basilar migraine derives its name from the basilar artery, which supplies blood to the brainstem. Symptoms of brainstem dysfunction (double vision, unsteady gait, vertigo, difficulty speaking) made doctors think that ischemia or lack of blood flow in that artery caused these symptoms. We now know that this is not the case and basilar migraine may be just another form of migraine with aura.

The FDA ruled that sumatriptan (Imitrex), other triptans, and ergotamines (DHE-45, Cafergot) are contraindicated in patients with basilar and hemiplegic migraine because of the unsubstantiated fear that these drugs may cause constriction of blood vessels that might be already constricted resulting in a stroke. There is little evidence that symptoms of hemiplegic and basilar migraine are caused by the constriction of blood vessels. It is most likely due to the dysfunction of the brain cells. In addition, constriction of blood vessels by the triptans is very mild.

A study just published in the journal Headache examined 67 patients with basilar and 13 with hemiplegic migraines who were treated with triptans and dihydroergotamine (DHE-45). None of these patients suffered a stroke or a heart attack.

This is not the first report of the safe use of triptans in the treatment of basilar and hemiplegic migraines. Although the total number of patients reported is small, it appears that triptans and ergots are probably safe in these types of migraines. Some doctors are afraid to prescribe triptans to such patients out of fear of litigation. There is a good chance that the next edition of the classification of headache disorders will no longer include basilar migraine because it is recognized as being just a form of migraine with aura. Ergots and triptans are not contraindicated in migraine with aura.

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Post-concussion symptoms have long been thought to be more severe and prolonged in people who have pre-existing psychological problems. This has been shown to be the case in the military personnel. A new study confirmed this observation in the first prospective study. Over 2,000 high school and college athletes in Wisconsin were asked to answer 18 questions (Brief Symptom Inventory-18, or BSI-18) and then were followed for three years. The 18 questions, which are listed below, addressed the presence of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and somatization (excessive bodily sensations). In the ensuing three years, 127 athletes sustained a concussion. The concussion had to be diagnosed by a licensed athletic trainer according to the Department of Defence definition, which includes alteration of mental status with associated headache, nausea, vomiting, balance difficulties, dizziness, cognitive difficulties, and other. These athletes were again evaluated two and six weeks later. Eighty percent of concussed athletes were men. The mean duration of symptoms was five days. Ninety five percent of them recovered completely within a month. High somatization score on the BSI-18 questionnaire predicted prolonged duration of symptoms, while no correlation was found with the years of playing a sport, the type of sport (most played football), number of prior concussions, migraines, ADHD, or the grade point average. Another factor that delayed recovery was the initial symptom severity after the concussion. Most of the concussions were mild with less than 10% of athletes losing consciousness.

An interesting and unexplained fact, not examined in this study, is that milder concussions tend to cause more severe symptoms than severe ones.

This was a very thorough study, but it was relatively small, so it is possible that other pre-concussion factors may also delay recovery. One such factor is pre-existing migraines. I see many patients, adults and children, who suffered from migraines and after a concussion have worsening of their migraines or new daily persistent headaches. If they themselves have never suffered from migraines, often their mother or siblings have a history of migraines, suggesting genetic predisposition to migraines.

Treatment of post-concussion symptoms, include typical therapies employed in migraine sufferers, including aerobic exercise, biofeedback, magnesium supplementation, Botox injections, and a variety of medications.

Brief Symptom Inventory-18

The Somatization dimension
01. Faintness or dizziness
04. Pains in heart or chest
07. Nausea or upset stomach
10. Trouble getting your breath
13. Numbness or tingling in parts of your body
16. Feeling weak in parts of your body
The depression dimension
02. Feeling no interest in things
05. Feeling lonely
08. Feeling blue
11. Feeling of worthlessness
14. Feeling hopeless about the future
17. Thoughts of ending your life
General anxiety
03. Nervousness or shakiness inside
06. Feeling tense or keyed up
15. Feeling so restless you couldn’t sit still
09. Suddenly scared for no reason
12. Spells of terror or panic
18. Feeling fearful

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Intravenous magnesium infusions may not be as safe in pregnant women as it has been always thought. The FDA recently moved intravenous magnesium from category A into category D (see category definitions below). This came about after the FDA reviewed 18 cases of babies who were born with serious problems after their mothers received intravenous infusions of large amounts of magnesium for 5 to 7 days in order to stop premature labor. The FDA strongly discourages this practice and states that “Administration of magnesium sulfate injection to pregnant women longer than 5-7 days may lead to low calcium levels and bone problems in the developing baby or fetus, including thin bones, called osteopenia, and bone breaks, called fractures.”

However, treatment of choice for eclampsia remains intravenous magnesium. Eclampsia, one of the most serious complications of pregnancy can be treated only with high doses of intravenous magnesium. Without intravenous magnesium eclampsia can lead to epileptic seizures, very high blood pressure, kidney failure and death.

The FDA also recommends that “Magnesium sulfate injection should only be used during pregnancy if clearly needed. If the drug is used during pregnancy, the health care professional should inform the patient of potential harm to the fetus.”

We do treat many patients, including pregnant women, with intravenous infusions of magnesium if they are deficient in magnesium and if their migraines respond to such infusions. Typically, these infusions are given monthly and the amount is only 1 gram, while for preterm labor the dose is 4-6 grams to start and then 2-4 grams an hour as needed. This monthly dose of 1 gram is extremely unlikely to cause any adverse effects. We find that migraines triggered by magnesium deficiency do not respond well to any other treatments and considering the risk of drugs, it is much safer to administer 1 gram of magnesium. This amount of magnesium just corrects the deficiency and does not cause very high magnesium levels, which can be detrimental.

Several other drugs routinely used in pregnancy may also not be as safe as we thought. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) has been considered one of the safest choices. However, recent evidence suggests possible link to attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD).

Butalbital, which is an ingredient in the popular headache drugs such as Esgic, Fioricet and Fiorinal is associated with an increased risk of congenital heart defects. Fioricet also contains caffeine, which has negative effects on the fetus and which can cause rebound (medication overuse) headaches.

FDA drug categories in pregnancy

Category A
Adequate and well-controlled studies have failed to demonstrate a risk to the fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy (and there is no evidence of risk in later trimesters).
Example drugs or substances: levothyroxine, folic acid, liothyronine

Category B
Animal reproduction studies have failed to demonstrate a risk to the fetus and there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women.
Example drugs: metformin, hydrochlorothiazide, cyclobenzaprine, amoxicillin, pantoprazole

Category C
Animal reproduction studies have shown an adverse effect on the fetus and there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in humans, but potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women despite potential risks.
Example drugs: tramadol, gabapentin, amlodipine, trazodone, prednisone

Category D
There is positive evidence of human fetal risk based on adverse reaction data from investigational or marketing experience or studies in humans, but potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women despite potential risks.
Example drugs: topiramate (Topamax), divalproex sodium (Depakote), lisinopril, alprazolam, losartan, clonazepam, lorazepam

Category X
Studies in animals or humans have demonstrated fetal abnormalities and/or there is positive evidence of human fetal risk based on adverse reaction data from investigational or marketing experience, and the risks involved in use of the drug in pregnant women clearly outweigh potential benefits.

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Dr. Leo Galland, whom I’ve known professionally for many years, has written (with his son) another outstanding book, The Allergy Solution. Sometimes I see a patient, who in addition to migraine headaches, suffers from a variety of other ailments. These patients usually see an allergist, an ENT doctor, an infectious disease specialist, and several other physicians, all without answers or relief. In most cases, Dr. Galland is the one who can figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Dr. Galland’s new book, which I just read cover-to-cover, presents scientific research that explains hidden causes of unexplained symptoms such as migraines, fatigue, weight gain, chronic pain, poor sleep, allergies, and reflux. The book describes the role of immune function, stress, nutrition, inflammation, environmental health, leaky gut, and the microbiome.

Most importantly, The Allergy Solution gives people practical solutions to relieve their symptoms, which are very often caused by allergies. Dr. Galland convincingly shows that allergies are aggravated by stress, abnormal gut bacteria, specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and other factors. He writes about scientific studies that show the effect of meditation on inflammation and how taking probiotics can improve not only your digestive problems but also migraines and many other symptoms. From this book you will learn the role of vitamin D, zinc, magnesium and a variety of other minerals and vitamins in returning you to health. One of the things I learned is that a combination of vitamin B12 and a mineral called molybdenum can reduce the amount of sulfites in your body. Sulfites, which often trigger migraines are used as a preservative and also occur naturally in wine.

To tell you more about what’s in the book, here is a series of questions answered by Dr. Galland:

Q: What have you discovered about the surprising hidden truths behind chronic symptoms?
A: You may not think of yourself as allergic. Your nose may not run, and your skin doesn’t itch. But you have common complaints that just won’t go away.
Do you suffer from:
•Weight gain?
•Depression or anxiety?
•Brain fog?

A hidden allergy is often the culprit. Chronic conditions that were previously diagnosed as autoimmune diseases, psychiatric disorders, or many others, wind up being allergic in origin.

Our search for answers to common mystery conditions, and the source of the allergy epidemic inspired us to write our new book, The Allergy Solution: Unlock the Surprising, Hidden Truth about Why You Are Sick and How to Get Well.

We reveal the proven role of allergy in causing weight gain, fatigue, headache, joint and muscle pain, a range of digestive symptoms from heartburn to diarrhea, mood problems, poor mental focus, and more. A step-by-step method for determining if you have hidden allergies is provided. And if you suffer from classic allergies like rhinitis, eczema or have asthma, our program addresses these issues from a nutritional and lifestyle perspective.

Q: Why are we seeing an epidemic of allergy today?
A: Allergies were once rare. Today they affect over a billion people. Environmental toxicity, depletion of beneficial intestinal bacteria and fast food all contribute to allergies.
Pollen counts are going up and up. A big cause? Air pollution, the kind generated by cars, buses and trucks. Scientists at the US Department of Agriculture investigated how air pollution affects ragweed. They discovered that pollution makes the plants grow twice as large and produce 5 times as much pollen. Many types of pollen, especially ragweed, are actually toxic. They contain an enzyme that damages the lining of your nose and lungs when you breathe them in. This sets the stage for rising allergies.

Driving While Allergic: Dutch scientists tested driving skills in people with allergies and discovered that Pollen exposure impaired the operation of an automobile to the same extent as drinking two cocktails.
Air fresheners increase the risk of allergies and asthma, mostly because of the chemical fragrances they contain, reports a study from the University of California. So what’s alternative? We can’t think of a better way to freshen your air than with ventilation. If the air outside your home is actually worse than the air inside, then try a commercial air purifier.

Cleaning sprays are also hazardous to your health. Using a household cleaning spray just once a week elevates your risk of developing asthma by 30 to 50 per cent, reports a study from Europe. But true clean doesn’t come from a cleaning spray. The Allergy Solution contains a program for freeing your home from these toxins. We call it Mission Detoxable. Step one is easy: ditch the chemical sprays and use water and baking soda for most cleaning jobs. Vinegar in water is great for glass and tile.
Q: How does nutrition impact allergies?
A: Research shows that people with allergies often suffer from nutritional deficiencies and may need nutritional enrichment of protective factors like selenium, magnesium, vitamins C and D, and omega-3 fats. In The Allergy Solution we provide a nutritional approach to overcoming allergy through food and supplements.
All of us need concentrated nutritional support for T-regs, which comes from natural folates found in vegetables such as leafy greens; carotenoids found in orange and yellow vegetables; the bioflavonoids found in things like parsley, strawberries and oolong tea; and detoxifying compounds found in broccoli.

Q: What are the most important nutritional factors for reversing allergy?
A: It is vital that the food you eat supply the nutrients you need to help your body remove toxins and establish healthy immune balance. To accomplish this, we include a simple program in The Allergy Solution called the Power Wash. It’s like hitting the re-set button on your computer. You can get started over a 3-day weekend.
With the Power Wash you eliminate the major problem foods like wheat, dairy, soy, corn, yeast, eggs and you nourish your body with a specially designed combination of vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs, and teas. They’ve been chosen because they support the function of a critical part of your immune system: regulatory T-lymphocytes. We call them T-regs. Their role is to turn off the unwanted immune reactions that create allergies. If you have allergies, you suffer from defective function of T-regs.
Q: How does allergy cause weight gain and prevent weight loss?
A: What happens is a vicious cycle driven by the effects of allergy on your metabolism. Clinical research reveals a strong link between allergy and weight gain. People with allergies are more likely to become overweight. People who are overweight are more likely to develop allergies.
Laboratory research shows that allergic reactions actually make fat cells grow larger and larger. Fat cells create a type of inflammation that unleashes stronger allergic reactions. Balancing immunity is essential for healthy weight loss.

Q: How does your program affect the skin?
A: Your skin is your most visible barrier against a toxic environment and a key target for allergic reactions. Allergy rapidly ages the skin and reversing allergy is essential to restoring its vitality.
The nutrients that nourish your immune cells are also essential for nourishing your skin. In addition, Mission Detoxable helps you decrease the stress placed on your skin by avoiding toxins in your home.

Q: What’s the role of your gut in creating or defending against allergy?
A: Two-thirds of your immune system is located in your intestinal tract. The gut is like a boot camp for training your immune cells. The drill sergeants are the bacteria living in your intestines. Biodiversity of these bacteria is essential for immune health and protects against allergy.
Antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, disinfectants and the modern diet all destroy this diversity and contribute to the allergy epidemic. Our book contains a program for overcoming allergies by healing your gut. It’s called ARC, for Avoidance, Reflorastation and Cultivation.

Q: How does your book address the environmental challenges facing the world?
A: We wrote The Allergy Solution to change how the world thinks about allergy, health, and our relationship with the environment. We reveal the science that says allergies are not just annoying symptoms to be covered over by medications, and the environment is not just a convenient place to put our car exhaust, toss our garbage, and spray our pesticides. In the chapter “How Did We Get So Sick” we bring to light the astonishing research that connects pollution, global warming and toxins to rising allergies and asthma.

The environment is all around us and within us, inside our digestive tract, respiratory system, and whole body. we have exposed the truth that just as the earth’s environment is out of balance, our bodies have become out of balance. Now the environment we all depend on is threatened as never before.

Q: Can We Be Part of the Solution?
A: Absolutely. A community effort is needed to protect the environment and our health. Let’s all work together to turn around air pollution, giving those with asthma—and those without—a better chance to breathe free? Reductions in air pollution could also curb the rising levels of pollen, helping those with hay fever feel more comfortable. Using fewer toxic chemicals would reduce the burden on the environment.

Allergies are connected to the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the environment we live in. Join us and be part of the solution. Learn more about natural health by joining our community at Follow Dr. Galland on and Twitter (@leogallandmd), and follow Jonathan Galland at and on Twitter @JonathanGalland.

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Sumatriptan (Imitrex) and similar drugs (so called triptans) are “designer” drugs that were specifically developed for the treatment of migraine headaches. They are very effective, but do not help all migraine sufferers. Anti-inflammatory pain killers, such as aspirin and ibuprofen work well for some people and sometimes these drugs are combined with triptans to achieve better relief.

Many migraineurs experience nausea and sometimes vomiting as part of their migraine, which prevents or delays the absorption of medicine, making it ineffective or less effective. To address this problem, two of the triptans, sumatriptan and zolmitriptan (Zomig) are available in a nasal spray form. Sumatriptan can be also self-administered as an injection and recently a skin patch of sumatriptan (Zecuity) became available. An anti-inflammatory pain medicine, ketorolac is also available as a nasal spray, as does a narcotic pain killer, Stadol (butorphanol). While Stadol is addictive and has other serious side effects, intranasal ketorolac (Sprix) is a very good pain medication. Sprix works much better than the ketorolac tablet, but not as well as an injection of ketorolac (Toradol).

Intranasal ketorolac was compared with intranasal sumatriptan in a study that was recently published in the journal Headache. The study showed that ketorolac and sumatriptan nasal sprays were equally effective and both were better than placebo spray. Both drugs caused nasal irritation and unpleasant taste in some patients, but these were not severe.

The main problem with intranasal ketorolac is its cost. On the price of 5 vials of Sprix (with a coupon) is about $1,000. Each vial is good for one day of use; it contains 8 sprays (15 mg each) and the usual dose is one spray into each nostril, repeated every 6 hours as needed. However, there is a way around the cost of this medication. Ten 30 mg vials of generic ketorolac for injections cost $15. You just need to buy a nasal spray bottle, empty the contents of the vial into it and use it as needed.

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The FDA approved Botox injections for the treatment of chronic migraine headaches more than five years ago. I just discovered that in this period of time only 100,000 chronic migraine sufferers received this treatment. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, 14 million Americans suffer from chronic migraines, so less than 1% of them have recieved this potentially life-changing treatment.

There are several possible explanations.
1. Botox is expensive and many insurance companies make it difficult for patients to get it. They require that the patient first try 2 or 3 preventive drugs, such as a blood pressure medicine, (propranolol, atenolol, etc.), an epilepsy drug (gabapentin, Depakote, Topamax), or an antidepressant (amitriptyline, nortriptyline, Cymbalta). Patients also have to have 15 or more headache days (not all of them have to be migraines) in each of the three preceding months. If these requirements are met, the doctor has to submit a request for prior authorization. Once this prior authorization is granted, the insurer will usually send Botox to the doctor’s office. After the procedure is done, the doctor has to submit a bill to get paid for administering Botox. This bill does not always automatically get paid, even if a prior authorization was properly obtained. The insurer can ask for a copy of office notes that show that the procedure was indeed performed. All this obviously serves as a deterrent for many doctors. Some of them find that the amount of paperwork is so great and that the payment is so low and uncertain, that they actually lose money doing it.

2. There are not enough doctors trained in administering Botox. This is becoming less of a problem as more and more neurologists join large groups or hospitals where at least one of the neurologists is trained to give Botox and gets patients referred to him or her. However, doctors in solo practices or small groups without a trained injector can be reluctant to refer their patients out for the fear of losing a patient. They may suggest that this treatment is not really that effective or that it can cause serious side effects.
The majority of doctors who inject Botox are neurologists, but there are only 15,000 neurologists in the US and many specialize in the treatment of strokes, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, MS, and other conditions. This leaves only a couple of thousand who treat headache patients. Considering that there are 14 million chronic migraine sufferers, primary care doctors will hopefully begin to provide this service.

3. Chronic migraine patients are underdiagnosed. Many patients will tell the doctor that they have 2 migraines a week and will not mention that they also have a mild headache every day. The mild headaches they can live with and sometimes my patients will even call them “normal headaches”, which they don’t think are worth mentioning. Good history taking on the part of the doctor solves this problem. However, once doctors join a large group or a hospital, they are pressured to see more patients in shorter periods of time, making it difficult to obtain a thorough history.

4. Some patients are afraid of Botox because it is a poison. In fact, by weight it is the deadliest poison known to man. However, it is safer than Tylenol (acetaminophen) because it all depends on the amount and too much of almost any drug can kill you. Fifty 500 mg tablets of Tylenol kills most people by causing irreversible liver damage. Hundreds of people die every year because of an accidental Tylenol poisoning, while it is extremely rare for someone to die from Botox. Tens of millions of people have been exposed to Botox since its introduction in 1989. It is mostly young children who have gotten into trouble from Botox because the dose was not properly calculated. Kids get Botox injected into their leg muscles for spasticity due to cerebral palsy, although children with chronic migraines also receive it (the youngest child with chronic migraines I treated with Botox was 8).

In summary, if you have headaches on more than half of the days (not necessarily all migraines) and you’ve tried two or three preventive drugs (and exercise, meditation, magnesium, CoQ10, etc), try to find a doctor who will give you Botox injections. Botox is more effective and safer than preventive medications because it does not affect your liver, kidneys, brain, or any other organ.

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Yoga is the most impactful import from India to the US. Yoga has many documented health benefits, including relief of headaches. I have been practicing Bikram yoga about twice a week for nearly 12 years. About a year ago I started having some neck and left upper back pain. I thought that strengthening neck exercises, meditation, occasional massage, which is what I recommend my patients, would eliminate the pain (I probably should have also gone for physical therapy). The pain was never severe and would temporarily improve with massage, but because it persisted and became annoying, I decided to try chiropractic.

Many doctors’ attitude towards chiropractors is dismissive, disdainful or worse. When I tried to google the number of chiropractic manipulations done in the US, the first item that popped up was Medscape’s Deaths After Chiropractic: A Review of Published Cases (there were 26 cases in that report). I have personally treated an elderly patient who developed a subdural hematoma (bleeding inside the head) after chiropractic manipulation. My usual advice to patients has been to go for physical therapy and massage instead of chiropractic. If a patient really wants to see a chiropractor, I advise asking not have any high velocity adjustments. This adjustment is done by suddenly turning and lifting your head to one side and it is responsible for most of the complications. I also tell patients that a good chiropractor will always give you exercises to do, while those who don’t, just want you to keep coming for adjustments for years. Many people feel immediate relief from chiropractic, but it lasts only a few days and they have to go back for another treatment. In fact, regular stretching done by a chiropractor can loosen the ligaments around the cervical spine and cause habitual subluxation of the joints. Subluxation is a partial joint misalignment, which a chiropractor can fix, but repeated adjustments stretches the ligaments and make it easier for the joint to misalign again.

So, why did I take a chance with my neck if not life? First, I wanted to experience what a chiropractic manipulation is like (I’ve also tried Botox, intravenous magnesium, TMS stimulation, and other treatments I offer my patients). Second, I ran into (or rather gave a TV interview to) Lou Bisogni, a chiropractor who is the chiropractor for the New York Yankees. If Joe Torre, Yogi Berra, Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter, and other top Yankee players (dozens of their signed photos are on the office walls) have been entrusting their bodies to him, then obviously he must be very good.

Because my pain has lasted for almost a year, Bisogni first X-rayed my neck. I was not surprised to see that my C5-6 cervical disc was mildly degenerated and the C5 vertebra slipped slightly forward over the C6. This misalignment was what must have prevented my pain from going away. Treatment of such mild misalignments is what chiropractors are probably best at. I did tell him that I did not want high velocity adjustments and he reassured me that he wasn’t going to do any. Many chiropractors are fully aware of the risks and do avoid this type of adjustment. Instead, Bisogni would first apply TENS (transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation – an old technique often used by physical therapists as well), ultrasound, or massage, followed by a brief and gentle adjustment. The adjustment was so gentle and brief (5 minutes or so) that I was a bit skeptical about its efficacy. But to my surprise, after 5 – 6 sessions my pain dramatically improved. It is not completely gone, so I will go for a few more sessions.

I did cut back on Bikram yoga to once a week (but added some weight training instead) and modified my routine when I do it. It is possible that extreme flexion and extension of my neck, which is part of some yoga positions (rabbit, camel, pranayama breathing), might have caused my neck problem. So, I avoid flexing and extending my neck all the way as far as I can. Many yoga instructors push their students to achieve a full expression of the pose, but if your neck hurts or feels uncomfortable, tell the instructor that you’d rather not take a chance with your neck. You should definitely avoid head stands (unless you can do them without putting any pressure on your head and support yourself on the forearms) and shoulder stands, which put excessive pressure on your cervical spine. Also, the high heat in Bikram studios can be a headache trigger for some migraine sufferers and I usually recommend to my patients doing yoga at room temperature.

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I have not been aware of any research indicating a link between salt intake and migraines. A study just published in the journal Headache by researchers at Stanford and UCLA looked at this possible connection.
This was a national nutritional study that examined sodium intake in people with a history of migraine or severe headaches.

The study included 8819 adults with reliable data on diet and headache history. The researchers classified respondents who reported a history of migraine or severe headaches as having probable history of migraine. They excluded patients with medication overuse headache, that is people who were taking pain medications very frequently. Dietary sodium intake was measured using estimates that have been proven to be reliable in previous studies.

Surprisingly, higher dietary intake of sodium was associated with a lower chance of migraines or severe headaches. This relationship was not affected by age or sex. In women, this inverse relationship was limited to those with lower weight (as measured by body mass index, or BMI), while in men the relationship did not differ by BMI.

This study offered the first scientific evidence of an inverse relationship between migraines and severe headaches and dietary sodium intake.

It is very premature to recommend increased sodium intake to all people who suffer from migraines and severe headaches. However, considering that this is a relatively safe intervention, it may make sense to try increased salt intake. I would suggest adding table salt to a healthy and balanced diet, rather than eating salty foods such as smoked fish, potato chips, processed deli meats, or pickles. These foods contain sulfites, nitrites, and other preservatives which can trigger a migraine attack.

People with high blood pressure and kidney or heart disease need to consult their doctor before increasing their salt intake.

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Caffeine is a well-know trigger of migraine headaches and I regularly write on this topic (my last post on this topic – caffeine causing headaches in adolescents – was three years ago). Caffeine can help migraines and other headaches, but in large amounts it worsens them due to caffeine withdrawal, which can occur in as little as 3 hours after the last cup of coffee. One of my patients was an extreme case. He told me that he figured out that his early morning migraines were due to caffeine withdrawal and he would set his alarm clock for 4 AM, so that he could wake up, drink some coffee and go back to sleep without the fear of a morning headache. A continuous intravenous drip of caffeine would also solve his problem. Most people opt for stopping caffeine, albeit it can be a difficult process. Going cold turkey is often easier than a gradual reduction in caffeine intake. To avoid severe withdrawal, prescription migraine drugs, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex), intravenous magnesium, nerve blocks and other interventions may be necessary in a small percentage of patients.

This post was prompted by a just published study that showed a higher risk of miscarriages in couples where either partner, male or female consumed more than 2 caffeinated beverages prior to conception. Caffeine has been long suspected but not definitively proven to increase the risk of miscarriages in women who drink large amounts of caffeine during pregnancy, but what is surprising is that consumption of caffeine by the male partner also increases the risk.

At the same time, recent studies widely publicized in the press have shown beneficial effects of consuming large amounts of caffeine. Caffeine supposedly lowers the risk of certain cancers, strokes, diabetes, and other conditions. However, if you suffer from headaches, heart burn due to reflux, or are trying to conceive, caffeine should be avoided.

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Ketamine is a sedating agent used to induce anesthesia. It is also a drug of abuse with street names such as “Special K” or “Ket”.

Ketamine has many advantages, which makes it a very popular choice in anesthesia. It works fast, blocks pain, opens the lungs, it is easy on the heart, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It may also have anti-cancer properties. Ketamine is being extensively tested for the treatment of depression that does not respond to medications.

Because ketamine works on a receptor involved in transmitting pain messages in the brain (NMDA receptor), it has been studied in various painful conditions. The amounts being tested for pain are much smaller than those used to induce anesthesia or even those used recreationally.

Even though it is a drug of abuse, it appears to be less addictive than heroine and prescription narcotics.

There are only few small studies and reports about the use of ketamine for migraine headaches. One such report published in the leading neurological journal Neurology describes 18 patients with prolonged migraine auras who were treated with intranasal ketamine spray. The duration of their auras was not shortened by ketamine, but the severity was reduced.

Another study showed that severe disabling aura was relieved in 5 out of 11 patients with hemiplegic migraine.

Several anecdotal reports have touted the benefits of ketamine in chronic migraines, cluster headaches, and chronic paroxysmal hemicrania (a rare type of headache that often responds to indomethacin and at times to Botox). While such anecdotal reports are useful, we need to have controlled trials to make sure that placebo effect is not playing a major role. There is nothing wrong with utilizing the placebo effect, but only if the treatment is completely benign. Unfortunately, ketamine like any other drug can have potentially serious side effects. This is why before treating pain with ketamine intravenously patients must be screened for possible heart disease or psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. While intranasal ketamine can be given in an office setting, intravenous administration must be done under close monitoring. Another issue is the cost since insurance companies do not cover this treatment because it is considered experimental.

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Fibromyalgia is a condition comorbid with migraine, which means that migraine sufferers are more likely to have fibromyalgia and those with fibromyalgia are more likely to have migraines (such relationships are not always bidirectional). One common finding in these two conditions is low magnesium level and both condition often improve with magnesium supplementation or magnesium infusions.

A new study by Dr. T. Romano of 60 patients with fibromyalgia showed that those who have low red blood cell (RBC) magnesium levels are likely to have low levels of growth hormone (IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor 1). RBC magnesium level is a more accurate test than the routine serum magnesium level, which is highly unreliable as most of the body’s magnesium sits inside the cells.

Dr. Romano recommends magnesium supplementation and a referral to an endocrinologist. It is possible that treatment with growth hormone will help those who are deficient, although it is also possible that magnesium supplementation alone (oral or intravenous, if oral is ineffective) could increase the production of growth hormone.

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A patient of mine just emailed me about a recent segment of the TV show, The Doctors, which featured a woman whose severe chronic migraines were cured by nasal surgery. The segment was shot a few weeks after the surgery, so it is not clear how long the relief will last in her case. The surgery involved removing a contact point, which occurs in people with a deviated septum. The septum, which consists of a cartilage in the front and bone in the back, divides the left and the right sides of the nose. If the bony septum is very deviated, which often happens from an injury, it sometimes touches the side of the nose, creating a contact point between the septum and the bony side wall of the nose.
contact point headache
Several small reports by ENT surgeons have described dramatic relief of migraine headaches with the removal of the contact point. If headaches are constant, then the constant pressure of the contact point would explain the pain. However, many of the successfully treated migraine sufferers had intermittent attacks. The theory of how a contact point could cause intermittent migraines is that if something causes swelling of the mucosa (lining) of the nasal cavity, then this swelling increases the pressure at the contact point and triggers a headache. This swelling can be caused by nasal congestion due to allergies, red wine, exercise, and possibly other typical migraine triggers.

This is a good theory, but it is only a theory and the dramatic relief seen after surgery could be all due to the placebo effect. The only way to prove that contact point headaches exist and can be relieved by surgery is by conducting a double-blind study, where half of the patients undergoes surgery and the other half does not. Giving both groups sedation and bringing them to the operating room will blind the patient while the neurologist who evaluates them will also not know who was operated on and who was not, making this a double-blind study. This design is also good only in theory because those who had surgery will have bloody nasal discharge and nasal packing, thus breaking the blind.

However, despite the fact that we will not see any double-blind studies in the near future, there is one way to predict who may respond to contact point surgery. An ENT surgeon can spray a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine, around the contact point during a migraine attack and if pain goes away, then surgery is more likely to help. I would not recommend anyone having surgery without such a test.

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Marijuana has been tried for a variety of medical conditions, including migraines, and in one of my previous post I mentioned dangers of smoking it. Medical marijuana does not have the same dangers since it is not smoked.

A study just published in the journal Pharmacotherapy involved 121 adults with migraine headaches who were treated with medical marijuana. The number of migraine headaches per month decreased from 10.4 to 4.6 with the use of medical marijuana. Most patients used more than one form of marijuana and used it daily for prevention of migraine headache. Positive results were reported by 48 patients (40%), with the most common effects being prevention of migraine headache and the second most common effect, aborted migraine attacks. Inhaled forms of marijuana were commonly used for acute migraine treatment and were reported to abort migraine headache. Side effects were reported in 14 patients (12%); the most common side effects were somnolence (2 patients) and difficulty controlling the effects of marijuana related to timing and intensity of the dose (2 patients), which were experienced only in patients using edible marijuana. Edible marijuana was also reported to cause more side effects compared with other forms. The authors concluded that the frequency of migraine headaches was decreased with medical marijuana use.

New York state just approved medical marijuana for ingestion by mouth or breathing in vapors. Medical marijuana is approved in NY for several medical conditions, including neuropathic pain, but not migraines. However, many migraine sufferers also have severe neuropathic pain over the scalp and neck. This pain is caused by irritation of the trigeminal and/or occipital nerves and manifests itself as burning or sharp and shooting sensation. To be able to prescribe medical marijuana doctors have to take a 4-hour online course. After taking this course, as I’ve discovered, it is not that simple to issue a prescription. It is done through a New York State website and requires a lot of detailed information. The patient also has to register with the State in order to be able to buy medical marijuana from the approved dispensaries. The dispensaries offer ingestible and vaporized forms of marijuana with a certain ratio of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Pure cannabidiol was just shown to reduced seizures by one-third in patients with intractable epilepsy, that is epilepsy that does not respond to usual epilepsy medications. This was the largest trial of its kind conducted by a group of neurologists led by Dr. Orrin Devinsky of NYU School of Medicine. The true efficacy and safety of the drug is now being evaluated in a double-blind trial, currently under way. THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects of the drug, while CBD does not cause such effects. Pure CBD (Epidiolex) is available only for the treatment of two rare conditions of childhood. The same company also makes Sativex, which is a 50-50 mixture of THC and CBD, and is approved in Europe and Canada for treatment of spasms in multiple sclerosis.

It is possible that pure cannabidiol will also be effective for pain and migraines without causing psychotropic side effects which are caused by THC.

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There has been some backlash against meditation with newspapers publishing articles claiming that meditation is overrated. Fortunately, serious scientists continue to publish solid objective data proving that meditation not only relieves pain and headaches and makes you feel better, but in fact changes the structure of your brain. In my recent post I wrote about one such a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

A new rigorous scientific study was just published in Biological Psychiatry. It looked at the benefits of mindfulness meditation and how it changes people’s brains and potentially improves the overall health.

The study was conducted at the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

The researchers recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were looking for work and were under significant stress. Half of the people were taught mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center, while the other half were provided sham mindfulness meditation, which involved relaxation and distraction from worries and stress.

All participants did stretching exercises, but the mindfulness group was asked to pay attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The relaxation group was encouraged to talk to each other and ignore their bodily sensations.

After three days, all participants felt refreshed and better able to deal with the stress of unemployment. However, follow-up brain scans showed changes only in those who underwent mindfulness meditation. The scans showed more activity among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. By four months after the retreat most people stopped meditating, however the blood of those in mindfulness meditation group had much lower levels of interleukin-6, a marker of harmful inflammation, than blood of those in the relaxation group.

These changes occurred after only 3 days of meditation. It is likely that an ongoing meditation practice will produce stronger positive effects. Personally, I try to meditate 30 minutes on at least 5 days a week and this is what I recommend to my patients. Even 10 or 20 minutes can have an impact on migraine headaches and general well being.

There are several excellent resources for learning meditation. Free podcasts by a psychologist Tara Brach is an excellent resource. My favorite book to learn meditation is Mindfulness in Plain English by B. Gunaratana. And of course, there is an app for that – and

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Prilosec (omeprazole), Nexium, Prevacid, and other similar drugs in the family of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can cause headaches directly, but more often by reducing the absorption of vitamins such as B12 and D, and minerals such as magnesium, over a longer period of time. My previous post described a 26,000 patient study that convincingly showed that PPIs cause vitamin B12 deficiency. We also know that older women on PPIs have a higher risk of bone fractures.

A report just published in JAMA Neurology adds another dangerous association. This was also a very large study that involved over 73,000 older people, of whom almost 3,000 were taking PPIs. Those on PPIs had a significantly higher risk of developing dementia. This is possibly due to a direct toxic effect of these drugs, but more likely it is because these drugs cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Three month earlier, the same journal published a study that showed that low vitamin D levels are associated with a significantly higher risk of developing dementia. A very important finding of this study was that even those who had what is considered a normal vitamin D level of between 30 and 50 had an increased risk of dementia, compared with those whose level was above 50. This is not surprising because a study of multiple sclerosis (MS) showed that those with low normal levels had many more attacks of MS than those who had high normal levels. Vitamin D seems to protect from many other diseases and to prolong life.

Many doctors will often tell you that your vitamin D level is normal if it is above 30, but you should ask what your actual level is and try to get it up to at least into 40s or 50s. The upper limit of normal is 100 (level higher than 125 can be harmful). This may require you taking 5,000 or more a day. Our government’s recommended daily requirement of 600 units is insufficient for most people. The same applies to vitamin B12 – many labs will consider a level between 200 to 1,100 to be normal, but in fact it should be at least 400.

If you take PPIs, try to get off them, which is not an easy task. Stopping such drug causes “rebound” increase in acid secretion, which makes symptoms worse than they were before PPI was started. The way to do it is to switch ot Zantac or Pepcid with antacids taken as needed. Then, you try to stop Zantac and keep taking antacids. After a while, with proper diet, you may be able to stop antacids as well.

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Treatment of medical conditions with electricity was first used by the ancient Romans who used electric eels to treat headaches, gout and in obstetrics.

Electric shock therapy for depression was one of the earliest widespread uses of electricity in medicine and it continues to be used successfully, although with some modifications to reduce side effects. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) has been shown to relieve pain of neuromuscular disorders (back, muscle and joint pains) as well as headaches (see my blog post on Cefaly). While TENS uses alternating current, direct current has also been widely utilized in treating various conditions, including migraines.

Despite billions of dollars spent on research, there has been very little progress in developing more effective therapies for glioblastomas, the most common and the deadliest form of malignant brain tumor. The standard therapy for glioblastoma has consisted of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
In October of last year, the FDA approved the use of the Novocure Tumor Treating Fields system for the treatment of patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma. This device delivers alternating electric fields through scalp electrodes to the tumor, interrupting cell division. The addition of the electrical stimulation to chemotherapy increased progression-free survival to 7.1 months, compared to 4.2 months in the group who received chemotherapy alone. There was also an increase in overall survival from 16.6 to 19.4 months. Living three months longer does not seem like a lot, but chemotherapy and radiation, which cause severe side effects, are not much more effective. There is hope on the horizon, however. Several companies are developing vaccines to treat glioblastoma. In one small trial half of the patients survived for 5 years. Northwestern Therapeutics is another company with a similar promising approach in using vaccines derived from patients’ own tumor cells to treat their tumor.

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Pituitary gland which is located inside the skull and underneath the brain is responsible for secreting various hormones. Pituitary adenoma is a benign tumor of this gland and it often causes increased release of either prolactin, growth hormone, or cortisol. Very often the tumor does not release any hormones. These tumors are extremely common – a microscopic tumor is found in one out of five adults, but they cause symptoms only in a very small proportion of such people. The symptoms are related to the type of hormone that is being released or are caused by the pressure of a growing tumor on the surrounding brain structures, or both. A very small tumor can be treated with medications, while large ones often require surgery. Small tumors have traditionally not been thought to cause headaches.

A recent study showed that in a minority of patients small tumors do cause severe headaches and if these headaches do not respond to medications, surgery can provide relief. The study was done by a group of Japanese neurosurgeons who reviewed the records of 180 patients who underwent surgery for pituitary adenomas at Kanazawa University Hospital between 2006 and 2014. They found nine patients with intractable headaches as the main complaint, associated with a small, but not microscopic pituitary adenoma (average diameter of 15 mm, or 3/5 of an inch). In eight patients the tumor did not secrete any hormones and in one it secreted prolactin.

All nine patients had complete or significant relief of their headache after surgery. The surgeons measured pressure inside the enclosed space called sella, which contains the pituitary gland and discovered that the pressure was significantly higher in patients with headaches than in those without.

In conclusion, while most patients with small tumors do not need surgery, those who have severe headaches that do not respond to medications, Botox injections, and other medical treatments, could find relief from surgery.

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My most commented on blog post (over 150 comments) is on the daily use of triptans. A new report confirms the safety of long-term daily use of sumatriptan injections in cluster patients. Cluster headaches are arguably the most severe type of headaches and the name comes from the fact that they tend to occur in clusters lasting several weeks to several months. However, in some patients headaches become persistent without any remissions and then they are called chronic cluster headaches. The only FDA approved treatment for cluster headaches is injectable sumatriptan (Imitrex). Most patients have one cluster attack in 24 hours, but some have many. A report mentioned in one of my other previous blogs describes a woman (although men are more commonly affected by cluster headaches) who has been injecting sumatriptan daily on average 20 times a day for 15 years.

A recent report by Massimo Leone and Alberto Cecchini is entitled, Long-term use of daily sumatriptan injections in severe drug-resistant chronic cluster headache.

The authors investigated occurrence of serious side effects in patients with chronic cluster headaches who were using sumatriptan injections continuously at least twice daily (the official limit) for at least 2 years. They found fifty three such patients with chronic cluster headaches seen in their clinic between 2003 and 2014. During the 2-year period, all patients were carefully followed with regular visits at their center. Headaches and sumatriptan consumption were recorded in headache diaries. Patients were questioned at each visit about serious side effects and had at least two electrocardiograms. Brain MRI was normal in all patients. None of the patients had a history of stroke, TIA, ischemic heart disease, myocardial infarction, or arrhythmia, or diseases affecting systemic vessels.

In the 2-year study period, no serious side effects were observed and no patients needed to discontinue sumatriptan use. No electrocardiogram abnormalities were found. All patients needed a full dose (6 mg) of sumatriptan injection (prefilled syringes with 4 and 6 mg available). At the end of the study period, 42% noticed some reduction in the efficacy of sumatriptan injections both in terms of time of onset of effect and on pain intensity, but still considered the drug their first choice to treat the attacks.

In the study period, 36 of the 52 patients (69%) used more than 12 mg of sumatriptan in 24 hours (maximum 36 mg in 24 hours) but no increase in number or severity of side effects was observed during the course of the study. Complete loss of efficacy was not reported by any of the patients.

The authors mention that since the launch of sumatriptan injections in 1992 and until 1998, approximately 451 serious cardiac side effects have been reported to occur within 24 hours after administration of sumatriptan injections, tablets or nasal spray, but this is out of more than 236 million migraine attacks and more than 9 million patient exposures between 1992 and 1998. The majority of patients who developed serious cardiac events within 1 to 3 hours of sumatriptan administration had risk factors for coronary artery disease.

The authors concluded that their results showed that long-term daily sumatriptan use in patients free of heart disease did not cause serious side effects and this is in line with observations from previous studies.

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Sumatriptan is now available in a nasal powder form. We already have sumatriptan in a tablet, injection, nasal spray, and a skin patch. I mentioned this product over 5 years ago and finally it was just approved by the FDA. This does not mean it will be available right away as it often takes many months for the company to ramp up production. In some cases, such as with inhaled migraine drug Semprana (formerly called Levadex), it takes years before the manufacturer achieves FDA quality standards of production.

OptiNose is the company that developed Xsail Breath Powered Delivery Device which is used to deliver sumatriptan nasal powder. OptiNose licensed the product to Avanir Pharmaceuticals and they named it Onzetra. Onzetra is a fast-acting dry powder that is delivered into the nasal cavity. The patient exhales into the device, which seals the nasal cavity, and this carries the medication from the device directly into one side of the nose.

Nasal powder should be much more effective and more consistently effective than the nasal spray. The problem with the nasal spray is that the liquid tends to leak out of the nose or into the mouth, while the powder sticks to the nasal mucosa and all of it gets absorbed. And while the nasal spray contains 20 mg of sumatriptan and Onzetra only 11 mg, Onzetra should be more effective. Similarly, only 6 mg of injected sumatriptan is much more effective than 100 mg of sumatriptan in a tablet. But do we need another form of sumatriptan? Actually this may be a very good product for people who have a sudden onset of a severe migraine or those who vomit with their attacks. The injection works well for these patients, but many would rather avoid the pain of a shot. Zecuity, a new transdermal form of sumatriptan would seem to be a good choice, except for the fact that it works much slower than Onzentra.

The approval of Onzetra Xsal was based on the data from Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials, safety data from over 300 patients, and the historical data from various other formulations of sumatriptan, which have been on the market for over 20 years. One of the studies showed a significantly greater proportion of Onzetra Xsail patients reported headache relief at 30 minutes (42% vs. 27%) and at every time point up to 2 hours post-dose vs. placebo patients (68% vs. 45%).

Onzetra Xsail will be supplied as a disposable nosepiece containing a capsule and a reusable device. Each capsule contains 11 mg of sumatriptan and each kit contains 8 doses.


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Headache is usually the main presenting symptom of temporal arteritis (also known as giant cell arteritis, or GCA), which is caused by inflammation of blood vessels. This condition happens almost exclusively in the elderly. It presents with a severe headache, which is often one-sided. Some, but not all patients have swelling and tenderness of their temporal artery at the temple. This is a serious condition because it damages blood vessels and can cause strokes, loss of vision, and other complications. The diagnosis is made by blood tests (C-reactive protein, or CRP and erythrocyte sedimentation rate, or ESR) and temporal artery biopsy. However, even the biopsy sometimes does not show the inflammation. The treatment consists of steroid medications, such as prednisone. Prednisone is usually very effective. Unfortunately, prednisone needs to be taken for years if not for the rest of the person’s life and when it is used for long periods, it has many potentially dangerous side effects.

A recent study published in JAMA Neurology showed that many patients with biopsy-proven giant cell arteritis have an infection with varicella-zoster virus. This virus is also responsible for shingles and chickenpox

The researchers reviewed samples of temporal arteries for the presence of varicella-zoster virus. It was found in 68 of 93 (73%) of temporal arteries of patients with the disease, compared with 11 of 49 (22%) normals.

The authors concluded that in patients with clinically suspected GCA, prevalence of the virus in their temporal arteries is similar independent of whether biopsy results are negative or positive. They also felt that “Antiviral treatment may confer additional benefit to patients with biopsy-negative GCA treated with corticosteroids, although the optimal antiviral regimen remains to be determined”, and that “Considering that antiviral medications such as Acyclovir are very safe, it is reasonable to give them to all patients with temporal arteritis.”

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Trigeminal neuralgia is an extremely painful condition which causes jolts of very intense electric-like pains in the face. Fortunately, many trigeminal neuralgia sufferers respond to medications or Botox injections.

Several surgical procedures have also been used to treat this condition. One of these procedures is destruction of the trigeminal ganglion. The most effective treatment involves opening the skull and placing a teflon pad between the trigeminal nerve and the blood vessel which compresses the nerve (this procedure is called microvascular decompression). This pressure on the trigeminal nerve by an artery is the cause of pain in the majority of patients. While surgery can be truly curative, it carries a risk of serious complications and should be done only if medications and Botox injections fail. Ideally, it should be performed by a surgeon who has performed hundreds of these operations.

Besides medications, Botox, and injections to destroy the trigeminal ganglion, stereotactic radiosurgery, or gamma knife, offers another alternative to brain surgery. This treatment appears to be very effective and a new study published in Neurology suggests that this procedure is more effective if it is done early. If gamma knife radiosurgery is done within a year of the onset of pain, patients remained pain free for an average of 68 months, while if it was done more than 3 years after the onset, the relief lasted only 10 months.

Although microvascular decompression is curative, two groups of patients may opt for radiosurgery. One group consists of patients who are poor surgical candidates because they have other medical conditions which may increase the risk of complications or death. Another group include those who are afraid to have open brain surgery and who prefer to have stereotactic radiosurgery.

As a side note I should mention that gamma knife, or stereotactic radiosurgery is the treatment of choice for most cases of acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor of the vestibular nerve, a nerve going from the inner ear to the brain. Open surgery almost always leads to facial paralysis and complete loss of hearing, while gamma knife can shrink the tumor without any damage to healthy tissues.

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The little white spots seen on brain MRI scans have long been thought to be benign. A nagging concern has always persisted since their meaning has remained unclear. A recent study by researchers at several medical centers across the US established that even very small brain lesions seen on MRI scans are associated with an increased risk of stroke and death.

This is a very credible study since it involved 1,900 people, who were followed for 15 years. Previous studies of these white matter lesions (WML), which are also called white matter hyperintensities (WMH) involved fewer people and lasted shorter periods of time (these are my previous 4 posts on this topic).

Migraine sufferers, especially those who have migraines with aura are more likely to have WMLs. One Chinese study showed that female migraine sufferers who were frequently taking (“overusing”) NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen actually had fewer WMLs than women who did not overuse these medications. Even though most neurologists and headache specialists believe that NSAIDs worsen headaches and cause medication overuse headaches, this is not supported by rigorous scientific evidence (the same applies to triptan family of drugs, such as sumatriptan). Another interesting and worrying finding is that the brain lesions were often very small, less than 3 mm in diameter, which are often dismissed both by radiologists who may not report them and neurologists, even if they personally review the MRI images.

The risk of stroke and dying from a stroke in people with small lesions was three times greater compared with people with no lesions. People with both very small and larger lesions had seven to eight times higher risk of these poor outcomes.

This discovery may help warn people about the increased risk of stroke and death as early as middle age, long before they show any signs of underlying blood vessel disease. The most important question is what can be done to prevent future strokes.

An older discovery pointing to a potential way to prevent strokes is that people who have migraines with aura are more likely to have a mutation of the MTHFR gene, which leads to an elevated level of homocysteine. High levels of this amino acid is thought to damage the lining of blood vessels. This abnormality can be easily corrected with vitamin B12, folic acid and other B vitamins.

More than 800,000 strokes occur each year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes. Strokes are a leading cause of death in the country and cause more serious long-term disabilities than any other disease. Routine MRI scans should not be performed, even in migraine sufferers, but if an MRI is done and it shows these WMLs, it is important to warn the patient to take preventive measures.

There are several known ways to prevent or reduce the risk of strokes. These include controlling weight, hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, reducing excessive alcohol intake, stopping smoking, and engaging in regular aerobic exercise.

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Asthma is more common in migraine sufferers and migraine is more common in those who suffer from asthma (the medical term is co-morbid conditions). A new study published in Headache examines a possible connection between asthma and chronic migraine. Migraine is considered chronic if headache occurs on 15 or more days each month.

This co-morbidity between migraine and asthma is thought to be due to the fact that both conditions involve inflammation, disturbance of the autonomic nervous system, and possibly shared genetic and environmental factors. What is not mentioned in the report is the fact that intravenous magnesium can relieve both an acute migraine (in up to 50% of migraine sufferers who are deficient in magnesium) and a severe asthma attack. This suggests another possible explanation for the co-morbidity. Magnesium deficiency may also explain, at least in part, co-morbidity between migraine and fibromyalgia and vascular disorders.

The Headache report was one of many based on the outcomes of the large and long-term American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study (AMPP). Study participants had to meet criteria for episodic migraine in 2008, complete an asthma questionnaire in 2008, and provide follow-up information in 2009. The researchers counted the number of these patients who developed chronic migraine a year later. The sample for this study included 4446 individuals with episodic migraine in 2008 of whom 17% had asthma. The mean age was 50 and 81% were female. In 2009, of the patients who had episodic migraines and asthma, 5.4% developed chronic migraine, compared to only 2.5% of those without asthma. So, having asthma doubles the risk of episodic migraine becoming chronic within a year. There was also a correlation between the severity of asthma and the risk of developing chronic migraine.

What we don’t know is whether aggressive treatment of asthma and migraines will reduce the risk of chronification of migraines. It is also possible that simple magnesium supplementation may have a protective effect.

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A hole between the left and the right side of the heart has been suspected to be the cause of migraines in some people. However, closing this hole has not produced dramatic improvement in several blinded studies that have been conducted in the past few years.

The hole, called atrial septal defect (ASD) is present in utero but begins to close as soon as the baby is born. In about 1.5% of the population (in twice as many women than men) the hole does not close completely. In most people this hole is small and does not cause any symptoms. However, if it is big, it requires intervention because it can lead to heart failure and strokes. Smaller ASD may not cause any symptoms, but has been suspected to be related to migraine headaches, especially migraines preceded by a visual aura.

The closure of ASD is done by threading up through a vein in the groin an umbrella-like device which is positioned and opened inside the heart to close the hole. A recent study looked at the need for different blood thinners to prevent blood clots from forming in the heart after the procedure. Half of the 171 migraine patients in the study were given aspirin and placebo and the other half aspirin and clopidogrel, another blood thinner. Interestingly, those who were given two blood thinners (aspirin and clopidogrel) had less severe migraine attacks than those on one (aspirin and placebo). This suggests, that the benefit seen in some of the previous ASD closure studies was due to the blood thinner rather than the procedure itself.

A trial currently under way at the Columbia University Medical Center is examining whether a different blood thinner, Brilinta will improve migraines in those with an ASD. If you’d like to consider participating and want to learn more about the study, go to this website.

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Magnesium deficiency is a regular topic on this blog. Up to half of migraine sufferers are deficient in magnesium, but magnesium levels are rarely checked by doctors. Even when magnesium level is checked, it is usually the serum level, which is totally unreliable. The more accurate test is RBC magnesium or red blood cell magnesium because 98% of body’s magnesium resides inside cells or in bones. At the New York Headache Center we often don’t bother checking even the RBC magnesium level, especially if other signs of magnesium deficiency besides migraines are present. These include coldness of hands and feet or just always feeling cold, leg muscle cramps, palpitations, anxiety, brain fog, and in women, premenstrual syndrome or PMS (bloating, breast tenderness, irritability). For these patients we recommend daily magnesium supplementation and sometimes monthly magnesium infusions.

About 20 to 30 million women suffer from moderate or severe PMS, and a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that having PMS increases the risk for hypertension (high blood pressure) later in life.

This study was done at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and it involved 1,260 women who suffered from moderate or severe PMS as well as more than 2,400 women with mild or no PMS. Women with moderate or severe PMS were 40 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure than those with mild or no PMS symptoms. The researchers adjusted the risk for other risk for hypertension, such as being overweight, smoking, drinking, inactivity, use of birth control pills, postmenopausal hormone use, and family history of high blood pressure.

The association between moderate or severe PMS and high blood pressure was most pronounced among women younger than 40, who were three times more likely to develop hypertension.

Interestingly, the risk of high blood pressure was not increased in women with moderate or severe PMS who were taking thiamine (vitamin B1) and riboflavin (vitamin B2). Other researchers found that women who consumed high levels of those vitamins were 25 to 35 percent less likely to develop PMS.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not look at magnesium levels or magnesium consumption in these women. A strong association exists between magnesium deficiency and high blood pressure. There is also an association between an increased magnesium (and potassium) intake and reduced risk of strokes. Supplementation with magnesium during pregnancy decreases the risk of hypertension during pregnancy. There is also a strong association between magnesium and depression.

There are literally hundreds of scientific articles on beneficial effects of magnesium, but unfortunately magnesium remains ignored by mainstream physicians. However, consumers are ahead of most doctors and many do take magnesium supplements. This is helped by many print and online articles and many books. Some of these books include Magnificent Magnesium, Magnesium Miracle, Magnesium – The Miraculous Mineral of Calm, and my two books – The Headache Alternative: A Neurologist’s Guide to Drug-Free Relief and What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Migraines.

Migralex is a product I patented and developed for the treatment of headaches. It contains an extra-strength dose of aspirin and magnesium. Magnesium in Migralex acts as a buffering agent and reduces the risk of stomach irritation by aspirin. Migralex is available at CVS stores,, and

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Meditation is growing in popularity and deservedly so. Several of my previous posts mentioned the benefit of meditation in migraine headaches. Scientists are conducting rigorous studies that repeatedly show the profound effect meditation has on the brain. The most recent study was done at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and it compared the effect of meditation and placebo on pain.

The study was published in the recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. It showed that mindfulness meditation not only provided greater pain relief than placebo, but the brain scans could differentiate patterns of brain activity during meditation from that induced by placebo.

The study involved seventy five healthy, pain-free volunteers who were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream or control.

Pain was induced by heat applied to the skin. The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and the emotional aspect of pain (how unpleasant it was) by 44 percent. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas.

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, said Dr. Zeidan, one of the researchers.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation does not relieve pain the way placebo does. This study confirms previous observations that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment. Another study has shown that an 8-week course of mindfulness meditation not only relieved pain but also made certain parts of the brain cortex measurably thicker.

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Inpatient migraine headache treatment in the US is usually limited to a five-day course of intravenous DHE and other medications. Even such brief admissions are not always approved by the insurance companies. Many patients improve after these admissions, but often only for a short time because besides some reduction in pain intensity, very little else changes in the patient’s life and her brain. It makes sense that longer-term inpatient rehabilitation of chronic migraine and pain patients can lead to a major and lasting improvement, but it is almost unheard of in the US. However, it is available in Germany and other countries.

Last November I lectured at one of the leading German inpatient rehabilitation facilities, the Berolina Klinik. My blog post about the Klinik was read by an Englishman with severe chronic migraines who was recently treated there with a three-week program with excellent results. Here is one of the articles that appeared in German press – Westfalen-Blatt 27.10.15.

And, shockingly to us Americans, the cost of treatment is less than $7,000 for a three-week stay in this top facility. Even with travel costs, it’s a bargain. I have been mentioning Berolina Klinik to my patients, although haven’t had anyone make the trip yet.

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23andMe offers direct-to-consumer genetic testing by analyzing a saliva sample. It provides information on predisposition for more than 90 traits and conditions ranging from acne to Alzheimer’s. Health-related results were suspended by the FDA because of the concern was that consumers may not be able to correctly interpret the health data, particularly regarding conditions such as Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, various cancers, and other. What is available is genealogical data and information on several conditions which did receive FDA approval. As of June 2015, 23andMe has genotyped over 1,000,000 individuals.

After submitting a saliva sample, consumers are asked to complete a number of surveys about their medical conditions, including migraines, personal habits, and other information. This has led to some important discoveries, which have been published in scientific journals. Here are some results related to migraines.

23andme discovered three genes which make migraines more likely. This discovery is not as important as it seems because these genes increase the risk of migraines by a very small amount and because dozens of other migraine susceptibility genes are being continuously identified.

In 2012 23andme acquired CureTogether, a “health research project that brings patients and researchers together to find cures for chronic conditions”, where some of the following information comes from.

Here is interesting, but also not very surprising information on most commonly reported migraine triggers:

stress (85%)
insufficient sleep (72%)
dehydration (64%)
looking at bright sunlight (61%)
inhaling smoke/strong odors (57%)
staring at a computer screen (56%)
flashing or flickering lights (56%)
weather changes (50%)
low blood sugar (49%)
loud environments (48%)
heat (47%)
caffeine withdrawal (43%)
alcoholic beverages (42%)
large groups of people (28%)
bananas (6%)

More than 65% of migraine sufferers have tried acetaminophen (Tylenol®), but it doesn’t work very well for most people. Over 20% of people have tried an alcoholic beverage, even though it typically makes migraines much worse. In contrast, less than 20% of people have tried wrapping a cold towel around their head, and yet it is one of the more effective treatments listed by migraine sufferers on CureTogether.

Treatments rated as most effective for patients with migraine
1. Dark, quiet room
2. Sleep
3. Eliminate red wine
4. Passage of time
5. Eliminate MSG
6. Avoid smoke
7. Wear sunglasses
8. Intravenous DHE
9. Imitrex injection
10. Ice packs

According to 23andme, “When symptom data and treatment data come together, powerful things happen. Data from nearly 3,500 CureTogether members tell us that those who experience vertigo or dizziness with their migraines are three times more likely (18% vs 6%) to have a negative reaction to Imitrex®, a sumatriptan medication that is often prescribed for migraine sufferers”.

A word of caution about 23andme. I personally submitted my saliva for testing and completed many questionnaires to help with their research. However, some feel that 23andme’s promises of not sharing personal genetic information with anyone else could be undermined in the future, as it happened with Google. Here is an interesting blog post from the Scientific American on this topic entitled, 23andMe Is Terrifying, but Not for the Reasons the FDA Thinks

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Magnesium infusion given before or during surgery reduces the amount of opioid analgesics (narcotics) needed in the 24 hours following surgery. Doctors at the Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ reviewed 14 of the most rigorous clinical trials which involved 910 patients. Half of those patients were given intravenous magnesium and the other half, placebo. During the first day after surgery there was a significant reduction in the need for morphine by those receiving magnesium compared with placebo.

Another study published in 2013 reviewed 20 clinical trials of magnesium for post-operative pain. These trials included 1,257 patients. This review also concluded that magnesium improved pain and reduced the need for narcotic pain killers.

Prescription narcotics are frequently in the news because of the epidemic of prescription drug abuse. However, the advantages of not using as much of these drugs after surgery are far greater than just a reduction of the risk of addiction. These drugs cause constipation, which is a problem after surgery even without opioid drugs, and it makes recovery more difficult. They can also cause confusion, difficulty breathing, and other side effects.

There are many possible explanations for the pain-relieving effects of magnesium. We know that it regulates the function of several receptors involved in pain, including serotonin and NMDA. It also relaxes muscles, opens constricted blood vessels, and reduces excitability of the brain and the entire nervous system. Both mental and physical stress depletes magnesium and they are very much present with surgery.

Magnesium is a natural pain blocker, which is effective for many patients with migraine and cluster headaches, as well as those with fibromyalgia, back pain, neuropathy, and other types of pain. Here is a recent blog post on magnesium and migraines.

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Sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) block has been used for the treatment of headaches and other pain conditions for over 100 years. The original method involved placing a long Q-tip-like cotton swab dipped in cocaine through the nose and against the SPG.

SPG is the largest collection of nerve cells outside the brain and it sits in a bony cavity behind the nasal passages. These nerve cells are closely associated with the trigeminal nerve and include sensory nerves, which supply feeling to parts of the head and autonomic nerves, which regulate the function of internal organs, blood vessels, as well as tearing and nasal congestion. Considering that these nerve cells produce such a wide range of effects, it is logical to expect that blocking these nerves might help headaches.

For obvious reasons we no longer apply cocaine, but instead use numbing medicines, such as lidocaine or bupivacaine. A small study suggested that just putting lidocaine drops into the nose can relieve an acute migraine. I’ve prescribed lidocaine drops to some patients with cluster headaches and a small number reported relief. The problem with nasal drops is that we are not sure if lidocaine actually reaches all the way back to numb the SPG even if they are lying down with the head hanging back over the edge of the bed. Using long Q-tips is uncomfortable and in many patients the Q-tip may also not reach the SPG.

To solve the problem, two doctors developed thin intranasal catheters that appear to consistently reach the area of SPG. Dr. Tian Xia’s Tx360 device seems to be more comfortable for patients because his is a thinner and a more flexible catheter. The recommended local anesthetic is bupivacaine (Marcaine), which lasts longer than lidocaine. A small double-blind study of SPG block using Tx360 in chronic migraine patients showed it to be effective. The active group had a reduction of the Headache Impact Test (HIT-6) score, while the placebo group did not. In this study patients were given the SPG block twice a week for 6 weeks. We need larger and longer-term studies in chronic migraine patients before advising such frequent regimen, not in the least because of cost.

SPG block seems to be more appropriate (and this is what we use it for at the NYHC) for patients with an acute migraine that does not respond to oral or injected medications and for those with cluster headaches. Since cluster headaches usually last for a few weeks to a couple of months (unless it is a patient with chronic cluster headaches), it is practical to try SPG blocks on a weekly basis. Theoretically, because there is so much autonomic nervous system involvement in cluster headaches (tearing, nasal congestion, and other), SPG should be particularly effective for cluster headaches.

Another way to affect the SPG is by stimulating it with electrical current, which seems to be effective for chronic cluster headache patients, according to a small study. This method requires surgical implantation of a device into the area of the SPG. See my previous post on this.

Below is an illustration of the SPG and the Tx360 device.

Sphenopalatine ganglion block with  Tx360 device

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Since my early 20s I’ve been getting visual auras without a headache several times a year. I still get them in my late 50’s and they still occur without a headache. In my 40s I started to have migraine headaches without an aura. My migraines are always left-sided and if I don’t treat them, I will develop sensitivity to light and nausea. Luckily, my migraines are not at all disabling because they remain mild for hours, so I have plenty of time to take 100 mg of sumatriptan, which works very well. The tablet works within one to two hours. When I want to have faster relief, I take a 6 mg sumatriptan injection. This usually happens at night when I want to go to sleep and I don’t want to wait for the pill to start working. I can’t fall asleep with a migraine, while for some, sleeps actually relieves the attack.

I am not happy about having migraines, but they do not interfere with my life and give me a better understanding of what my patients are going through. Also, I try to subject myself to treatments I offer my patients. I do not need to take a daily preventive medicine, such as topiramate or propranolol or Botox injections. However, since Botox is very safe, I did inject myself with Botox once to see what it feels like. It was not very painful, but obviously everyone has a different pain threshold (here are video 1 and video 2 of me injecting patients with Botox). I also gave myself an intravenous infusion of magnesium, which did make me feel warm, but had no beneficial effects since I am not one of the 50% of migraine sufferers who are deficient in magnesium.

The next thing I decided to try is a nerve block. Nerve blocks are injections of a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine or bupivicaine to numb the nerves around the scalp (here is a previous blog on nerve blocks). It is somewhat surprising that numbing a superficial nerve under the skin stops a migraine, which we know to originate in the brain. For the same reason a lot of scepticism greeted me at medical meetings over 20 years ago when I gave lectures on Botox for migraines. Now we know that although the migraine process begins in the brain, peripheral nerves send messages back to the brain closing a vicious cycle of brain activating the nerves and nerves feeding back pain messages into the brain. Disrupting this circuit with a peripheral nerve block for short-term relief and with Botox for long-term prevention seems to be very effective. Nerve blocks can be effective when drugs are not or when drugs are contraindicated because of an illness or pregnancy.

Sometimes, blocking the occipital nerve at the back of the head works well, but other patients need nerves blocked in their temples or forehead. Since my migraines are always localized to the left temple, I decided to give myself a block of the temporal branch of the left trigeminal nerve. The nerve block helped one of two times I tried it. Obviously, I do not recommend DIY nerve blocks or teach patients how to do it, but I did encounter one patient who learned how to give himself an occipital nerve block before coming to see me. There might be some exceptions, such as for people living in remote areas and who do not respond to any other treatments, or in not such distant future, for those traveling to Mars.

The next treatment I will try is a sphenopalatine ganglion block. I will describe this treatment in my next post.

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Acupuncture and Alexander technique appear to be equally effective and significantly more effective for the treatment of chronic neck pain than routine care, according to a study by British researchers published in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The doctors divided 517 patients who suffered from neck pain for at least 6 years into three groups. The first group received an average of 10 50-minute acupuncture treatments, the second had an average of 14 30-minute Alexander technique lessons, and the third group received the usual care. The authors found that acupuncture and Alexander technique both led to a significant reduction in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care at 12 months.

One possible explanation of such good efficacy beyond the direct effect of the treatments was that patients in the active treatment groups had improved self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one’s actions are responsible for successful outcomes and it was measured by a standardized questionnaire.

It is possible that other forms of therapy that enhance self-efficacy, such as tai chi, meditation, and other can also improve long-standing neck pain, as well as headaches. There are many acupuncture studies that show a significant benefit for migraine headaches (here is one described in a previous post), however unlike this neck pain study most of them did not follow patients for such a long period of time. Alexander technique has been also helpful for some of my patients, but again, good studies are lacking.

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Richard Wenzel PharmD of the Diamond Headache Clinic in the latest issue of the leading medical journal, Headache writes about the shocking fact that this country’s pharmaceutical industry cannot reliably supply medications for patients. He also talks about a connected, also undeniable development: “generic drugs currently push the boundaries of affordability”.

Drug shortages involve easily replaceable drugs, but also many life-saving cancer medications. Headache sufferers have not been spared, especially those with severe illness requiring injectable products; droperidol has been unavailable since 2013, various haloperidol and magnesium products are currently on backorder, and the availability of ketorolac, diphenhydramine, and valproic acid has recently been sporadic.

Dr. Wenzel writes that as of July, 2015, the American Society of Health Systems Pharmacists (ASHP) cited 265 active drug shortages. There’s also a “drugs no longer available” list of 57 medications unlikely to ever be commercially manufactured again, including ergotamine.

In the past two years, injections of dihydroergotamine, an irreplaceable migraine drug developed in 1940s, had been unavailable for two periods of lasting several months. The cost of this generic drug skyrocketed from 10 to up to $130 for a single dose.

Scarcities of raw materials, disruptions to manufacturing plants (eg, hurricane damage), insufficient FDA staff to provide prompt approval for production facilities, industry consolidation, and decisions to stop producing a marginally profitable or unprofitable product have all been cited as shortage reasons.

According to the Healthcare Supply Chain Association the costs of 10 drugs widely prescribed among the general public have jumped up to 8000% in as little as one year (2013–2014). For example, a single tablet of an antibiotic doxycycline went from $0.04 to over $3.60 and the new cost of Isuprel, a heart medication went from $180 to $2700 for a single ampule.

The medical community has been trying to address the problem of shortages and high costs through various organizations and the congress, but to no avail. Actually, the government is to blame in some cases. Besides the FDA staff shortages, low payments by the government (and insurers) that do not cover the cost of production is another common reason. When all pharmaceutical companies stop manufacturing a non-profitable or money-losing drug, one company jumps back in and because it is the only one making this medicine, they can charge exorbitant amounts for a generic drug.

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Solar activity is high again – NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory reported a flare on October 1. And in the past two weeks we’ve been seeing many more patients whose cluster headaches returned. The last time we had a surge in the number of cluster patients was last October, when solar activity was also high (see this post).

Unfortunately, there is not a lot we can do about the solar activity, but we do have many treatment options for cluster headaches. These include intravenous magnesium (40% of cluster headache sufferers are deficient), occipital nerve blocks, steroids, daily prevention with verapamil, Botox injections, oxygen inhallation, nasal spray of zolmitriptan (Zomig NS), and sumatriptan (Imitrex) injections. For most cluster patients one more often several of these treatments provide good relief. If these are ineffective, we also use drugs such as lithium, topiramate, and even an herbal supplement, Boswellia.

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A report describing delivery of magnesium through the skin for the treatment of fibromyalgia has just appeared in the Journal of Integrative Medicine. The title of the report is, Effects of transdermal magnesium chloride on quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia: a feasibility study. It was conducted by doctors at the Mayo Clinic, which carries a certain amount of legitimacy. However, close reading of this report shows shockingly poor quality of this study.

It is true that magnesium deficiency has been found in patients with fibromyalgia (especially if levels other than serum or plasma are measured, i.e. ionized or RBC) Fibromyalgia is a syndrome of unknown cause, which is characterized by chronic pain, fatigue, depression, and sleep disturbances. Some studies have found that the lower the level of magnesium, the more symptoms patients were having. There is an association between fibromyalgia and migraine headaches and those of our patients who have both conditions often report relief of both migraines and fibromyalgia with oral magnesium supplementation or intravenous infusions.

Several companies promote products that promise to deliver magnesium into the body through the skin. The oldest one is Epsom salts, which is magnesium sulfate. Taking a warm bath with Epsom salts surely feels relaxing, but there is no evidence that magnesium penetrates through the skin.

The Mayo clinic study enrolled forty postmenopausal female patients with the diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Each was given a spray bottle containing a 31% solution of magnesium chloride (and “a proprietary blend of trace elements”) and asked to apply 4 sprays per limb twice daily for 4 weeks. They were also asked to complete various questionnaires. Only twenty-four patients completed the study, with 4 dropping out because of skin irritation. At week 2 and week 4 most were significantly improved.
The authors concluded that their study “suggests that transdermal magnesium chloride applied on upper and lower limbs may be beneficial to patients with fibromyalgia”. This was a very small and unblinded study with many dropouts, which means that no conclusions can be made. It is very surprising why the authors did not measure magnesium levels before and after the treatment, which would make the study much more valuable.

The company that sponsored the study has a product they’d like to sell to the unsuspecting public and it will certainly use this “study” and the Mayo Clinic name to sell their miracle spray. The Mayo Clinic is a highly respected institution and I hope they will not allow its name to be associated with such poor quality marketing studies.

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Zecuity, a skin patch containing a migraine drug sumatriptan was approved by the FDA almost two years ago, but it became available (by prescription) only last month (see my previous post about Zecuity). The product is not available in retail pharmacies, only from a specialty pharmacy. The doctor who prescribes the patch will usually provide information on where to get it. Otherwise, go to, where you can find a section entitled Migraine Support Solutions. At this site you can verify that your insurance covers this product, get it shipped to you, and then get information on how to apply the patch. A discount coupon is also available on the site and it promises that the copay will be as low as $15. That is a good thing, because it looks like (on each patch costs $300. Yes, not $30, but $300 a piece, or $1,200 for a box of 4. I don’t think too many people will be buying this patch if their insurance does not cover it.

So, who is the best candidate for Zecuity? Half of migraine sufferers experience nausea and/or vomiting with their attacks. This makes the absorption of oral drugs, such as triptans (Imitrex, Maxalt, Zomig, etc) so slow as to make them ineffective. In such patients we try to bypass the stomach, which until now was possible to do with a nasal spray, suppository, or an injection. Sumatriptan (Imitrex) is available in the US in tablets, nasal spray and self-administered injections. Nasal spray of sumatriptan is not very effective, but injections work better than tablets. Relief from an injection can occur in as quickly as 10 minutes, but injections can cause more side effects, which are mostly unpleasant rather than dangerous. Obviously, most people would rather not get a shot. One form of injectable sumatriptan delivers the medicine through the skin without a needle (Sumavel), but not without pain see this post.

One other triptan, zolmitriptan (Zomig) is available in a nasal spray and it is more effective than sumatriptan nasal spray, but it is not available in a generic form, making it less accessible because of the high cost and restricted insurance coverage.

The perfect patient for Zecuity is someone who experiences nausea and/or vomiting with their migraine attacks and who does not respond to tablets and has side effects from or aversion to injections. Zecuity provides good relief for such patients with the main side effect being skin irritation from the patch. The patch is fairly large, the size of a palm. It uses a miniature battery to generate an electric current, which helps drive the medicine through the skin. Iontopheresis is the name of this process. Iontopheresis has been known for decades, but Zecuity is the first product approved by the FDA to utilize this technology.

Disclosure – Teva Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of Zecuity pays me to give lectures about Zecuity to doctors.

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Epilepsy and migraines share many features and those with epilepsy have a higher risk of developing migraines, while those with migraines are more likely to develop epilepsy. Anti-epilepsy drugs are commonly used for the preventive treatment of migraines.

A study just published in Neurology by Hong Kong researchers investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy and social support in patients with drug-resistant epilepsy.

It was a blinded and randomized trial. Sixty patients with drug-resistant epilepsy were randomly allocated to mindfulness therapy or social support (30 per group). Each group received 4 biweekly intervention sessions. They measured quality of life, as well as seizure frequency, mood symptoms, and neurocognitive functions.

Following intervention, both the mindfulness and social support groups had an improved quality of life, but significantly more patients in the mindfulness group had a clinically important improvement. Significantly greater reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms, seizure frequency, and improvement in delayed memory was observed in the mindfulness group compared with the social support group.

The authors concluded that even short-term mindfulness therapy in patients with drug-resistant epilepsy provides significant benefits.

It is surprising that even seizure frequency was reduced, although stress and lack of sleep can definitely increase seizure frequency. The study did not evaluate the quality or duration of sleep, but mindfulness meditation is know to improve sleep. It also improves migraine headaches (see my previous post).

To start meditating you can download a very popular app, Headspace or read a book by BH Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English or download free podcasts at

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About 12% of the population suffers from migraines. In addition to high rates of migraine-related disability, migraineurs are at a higher risk than the general population of additional disability related to depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and other conditions.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder of the central nervous system with increased brain excitability. It often manifests itself not only with muscle pains, but also fatigue, memory problems, and sleep and mood disturbances. Various studies estimate that anywhere from 2% to 8% of the general adult population suffers from fibromyalgia. Just like with migraine, women are more often affected than men. The likelihood of coexisting fibromyalgia increases with increasing frequency and severity of migraine attacks.

Both migraine and fibromyalgia have been individually linked with increased risk of suicide. However, it is not clear that the risk is more than additive.

A study just published in Neurology, reports that patients with migraine and coexisting fibromyalgia have a higher risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts compared with migraine patients without fibromyalgia.

The study looked at 1,318 patients who attended a headache clinic. Of these patients, 133 or 10% were found to also have fibromyalgia. Patients with both conditions had more frequent, more severe, and longer-lasting migraine attacks as well as higher use of abortive medications.

Compared with migraine patients who did not have fibromyalgia, those with fibromyalgia were more likely to report suicidal ideation (58% vs 24%) and suicide attempts (18% vs 6%).

This report suggests that migraine and fibromyalgia may magnify the risk of suicide compared with the risk of the individual conditions. However, because this data comes from a specialty headache clinic, many patients were severely affected by their migraines, with more than 35% having chronic migraine. It is likely that the results would be less dramatic among migraine sufferers in the general population. Almost half of the estimated 35 million migraine sufferers in the US do not consult a physician. Most of them suffer from milder migraines than those who do consult a doctor.

This study suggests that patients with migraine should be evaluated for other chronic pain conditions and for their mental health well-being. In particular, patients with chronic migraine should be screened for other painful conditions and mental illness. And patients with fibromyalgia should also be evaluated for migraine and potential suicide ideation. Patients often do not appear depressed, but simple questions can detect depression, which can lead to effective treatment. Our initial evaluation at the New York Headache Center includes two questions which are highly indicative of depression: 1. Have you been bothered a lot in the last month by feeling sad, down, or depressed? 2. Have you been bothered a lot in the last month by a loss of interest or pleasure in your daily activities?

Antidepressants have been proven to be effective for the prevention of migraines even in the absence of depression and are the best choice for people suffering from both conditions. Prozac, Lexapro and other SSRI antidepressants do not help migraines or pain, but SNRIs such as Effexor, Cymbalta, and Savella or tricyclics such as Elavil, Pamelor, and Vivactil do relieve pain and depression.

Magnesium deficiency is common in both migraines and fibromyalgia and we recommend an oral supplement to all patients. Some patients do not absorb magnesium and respond very well to monthly intravenous infusions of magnesium. Both their migraines improve as do fibromyalgia symptoms.

One interesting difference between migraines and fibromyalgia is the response to Botox. Botox is proven to be highly effective for the prevention of migraines and it works very well to relax spastic muscles. However, Botox appears to be ineffective for the treatment of muscle spasm in fibromyalgia. It is possibly explained by the fact that Botox interferes with the function of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in contracting healthy muscles. In fibromyalgia, studies suggests a deficit in acetylcholine, so further blocking it would be ineffective or even make the muscle pain worse (which I’ve seen in a few patients).

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Narcotic (opioid) drugs are still widely prescribed by doctors in offices and emergency rooms. They are not only potentially addictive, but also are not effective for the treatment of migraine headaches. The guidelines of the American Academy of Neurology call for avoidance of opioids for migraine and headache.

Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic developed a detailed, step-by-step algorithm that has dramatically reduced the use of narcotics for migraine management in the emergency room and prescribing of them upon discharge.

In the three months before the algorithm was implemented 66% of migraine patients had received narcotics in the ER and 44% had discharge prescriptions for these medications. After algorithm implementation, the rates were 19% and 5%, respectively.

The results of this study were presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Headache Society.

The first step of the algorithm involves using a three-question screener for diagnosing migraine. The questions elicited the presence of nausea, sensitivity to light and inability to function normally. If two of these three symptoms were present, migraine diagnosis was made, provided no other serious condition was causing the headache. Doctors then evaluated for potential drug-seeking behavior and repeated ER visits without appropriate follow-up with the patient’s primary care provider.

The first step was intravenous or intramuscular injection of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medicine ketorolac (Toradol) plus a nausea drug, metoclopramide (Reglan) plus an anti-histamine, diphenhydramine (Benadryl). If the patient did not experience at least 50% pain relief, step 2 was a steroid medication, dexamethasone (Decadron) plus valproate sodium (Depacon) plus magnesium sulfate. Step 3 used in patients who didn’t experience at least 50% pain relief was a subcutaneous injection of sumatriptan, which was repeated in one hour if the headache did not resolve. If the patient failed sumatriptan in the past, dihydroergotamine (DHE-45) was given with a nausea drug prochlorperazine (Compazine), metoclopramide (Reglan) or ondansetron (Zofran).

If patients do not respond to the third step, they are considered for hospital admission and admission did increase from 8% to 25%.

It is a very good algorithm and if you suffer from severe migraines that at times land you in an ER, I would keep this list of injectable drugs, so that you can ask for them. However, I would ask for intravenous magnesium to be given first since it has a 50% chance of helping without side effects, which can occur with every other drug. I would also use sumatriptan after magnesium since it is very effective and is the only migraine-specific drug available in an injection. Studies suggest that diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and valproex sodium (Depacon) are not very effective, so I would avoid those if you have a choice.

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MRI scans of migraine sufferers are almost always normal. Occasionally we see white spots on the MRI, which can be also found in people with high blood pressure, dementia, and sometimes in perfectly healthy people (see my previous post on this).

However, Mayo Clinic neurologists, led by Dr. Todd Schwedt reported being able to diagnose chronic migraines on the MRI scan. The accuracy of the diagnosis of those who had 15 or more headache days each month was fairly high – 84%. Patients with this frequency of attacks are considered to be suffering from chronic migraines. However, they could diagnose only 67% of those with episodic migraines (less than 15 headache days each month). The researchers used sophisticated software (FreeSurfer) that measured the surface area, thickness, and volume of 68 various brain regions and discovered that changes in 6 of these regions were predictive of migraine diagnosis. These 6 regions participate in pain processing in the brain and include the temporal lobe, superior temporal lobe, anterior cingulate cortex, entorhinal cortex, medial orbital frontal gyrus, and the pars triangularis. The software used in the study is freely available, but using it is time consuming and it is utilized only by researchers and not by any hospital or private MRI facilities.

Their findings confirmed what until now was an arbitrary decision by headache experts to divide migraines into episodic and chronic ones with a 15 day cutoff. Ahother study by Dr. Richard Lipton and his colleagues at the Montefiore headache clinic has found that those who have 10 or more headache days each month have many similar features compared to those who have less than 10.

This is not a purely academic question. Insurance companies will pay for Botox only if a patient has 15 or more headache days each month because this type of patients was used in clinical trials of Botox. However in practice we also see very good response to Botox in patients who have fewer than 15 days.

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Propranolol was first introduced as a blood pressure drug 50 years ago and about 40 years ago it was discovered to be effective for the prevention of migraines. This is quite a remarkable drug because it is also used for rapid heart beat, heart attacks, tremor, and performance anxiety. Public speakers, musicians, and others take a small dose before performances and the drug reduces the physical stress responses such as sweating, tremulousness, weakness, and other. Blinded studies showed that musicians perform better when given a beta blocker compared to musicians who are given a placebo pill.

Since the introduction of propranolol, another two dozen beta blockers have been developed. The newer, so called selective beta blockers (they attach to only one type of stress receptor) tend to have fewer side effects than propranolol and other non-selective beta blockers. Selective beta blockers can be given to patients with well-controlled asthma, while non-selective ones can cause an asthma attack.

Recent studies have shown that chronic stress promotes the growth and spread of cancers. Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center decided to review the records of 1,425 patients who were treated for ovarian cancer at four hospitals between 2000 and 2010. Of these, 268 had been treated with a beta blocker while receiving chemotherapy for their ovarian cancer. The average survival of those who were on a beta blocker was 48 months compared to 42 months for those who were not. A more dramatic difference was found between those who were taking a non-selective beta blocker (propranolol in almost all cases): they lived 95 months – twice as long as women not on a beta blocker.

Considering these findings, if I decide to prescribe a beta blocker, I may start prescribing propranolol as the first-line drug for the prevention of migraines. And only if the patient has side effects, will I switch them to a selective beta blocker, such as atenolol or nebivolol (Bystolic). Common side effects of beta blockers are fatigue and dizziness from a drop in blood pressure and difficulty exercising because the heart rate cannot increase high enough to provide for the increase in demand for oxygen. Because regular aerobic exercise is my first recommendation for the prevention of migraines, I tend to reserve beta blockers for patients whose blood pressure is high or at the high end of normal range, whose pulse is fast, and for those who fail other preventive drugs and Botox (however, most insurers approve Botox for chronic migraines only if the patient fails 2 or 3 preventive drugs, including a beta blocker).

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New onset of headaches is always worrisome, but even more so in a pregnant woman. Neurologists at the Montefiore Headache clinic in the Bronx conducted a 5-year retrospective study of pregnant women who presented with an acute headache, were hospitalized, and received a neurologic consultation. The study was published in Neurology.

The researchers identified 140 women with a mean age of 29 years. About 56% of these women presented in the third trimester. Primary headaches was present in 65% and secondary (due to an underlying disease) was found in 35% of women. The most common primary headache disorder was migraine and it was found in 91%, while the most common secondary headache disorder present in 51% was high blood pressure.

Primary headaches included migraine without aura, seen in 37%, migraine with aura, in 24%, chronic migraine, in 6%, episodic tension-type headache, in 3%, chronic tension-type headache, in 1%, and primary stabbing headache, in 2% (this adds up to more than 65% because some had more than one type of headaches). Besides hypertensive disorders such as preeclampsia and eclampsia (18%), secondary headache diagnoses included pituitary adenoma or apoplexy in 4%, infections in 2%, stroke in 3%. Pregnant women with secondary headaches were less likely to have had headaches in the past (37% in secondary vs 13% in primary) and were more likely to have seizures (12% vs 0%), elevated blood pressure (55% vs 9%), fever (8% vs 0%), and an abnormal neurologic examination (35% vs 17%). Psychiatric comorbidity (presence of depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc) and phonophobia (sensitivity to light) were less likely with secondary headache.

The authors concluded that among pregnant women receiving inpatient neurologic consultation, more than one-third have secondary headache. Doctors should be particularly vigilant in the absence of a headache history and if seizures, hypertension, or fever are present. On the other hand, specific headache features such as location of the pain, throbbing character, sensitivity to light and noise are less helpful in distinguish primary vs secondary headaches. The neurologists who conducted this review recommend low thresholds for neuroimaging (CT or MRI scan) and monitoring for preeclampsia and eclampsia. Preeclampsia and eclampsia are complications of pregnancy with elevated blood pressure, sometimes seizures, and kidney problems, which can be life-threatening and which are treated with intravenous infusions of magnesium.

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Migraine with aura is believed to increase the risk of strokes and possibly heart attacks, although the risk estimates vary from study to study.

A recent study demonstrated no increase in the risk of strokes in people who suffered from migraine with and without aura, unless they were active smokers. The findings were published last month in the journal Neurology. Among the 1292 participants with an average age of 68 years there were 262 with migraine. There was no relationship between migraine (with or without aura) and stroke or heart attacks during the 11 year follow up period. However, among the 198 current smokers, there was a 3-fold increased risk for stroke.

The lack of relationship between migraine with aura and stroke seen in previous studies is probably due to a relatively small sample size.

I personally have seen two young women with migraine with aura who suffered a stroke. Both of them were smokers and were taking oral contraceptives. Estrogen contraceptives (even newer ones with lower estrogen content) further increase the risk of strokes in women who have migraine with aura. Progesterone-only pill does not increase the risk of strokes. Some women with severe endometriosis, heavy menstrual blood loss, and severe PMS sometimes have to accept a slight increase in the risk of strokes and take an estrogen-based contraceptive. However, if they smoke, they must stop smoking and also try to reduce other risk factors for strokes, if they are present. These include keeping hypertension and diabetes under control, lower high cholesterol, maintain normal weight and exercise regularly.

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Fluctuations in the female hormone estrogen have been proven to be involved in triggering menstrual and perimenopausal migraine headaches. Testosterone levels have been reported to be low in men and women with cluster headaches. Testosterone replacement therapy seems to help these patients, when other standard treatments for cluster headaches do not.

A study presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Headache Society reported on testosterone levels in men with chronic migraine headaches. A significant percentage of men with chronic migraines also have low testosterone levels. This study did not look at the effect of testosterone replacement therapy, but it is possible that it may help chronic migraine sufferers as it does those with cluster headaches. It seems prudent to check testosterone level in men with chronic migraine headaches who do not respond to standard approaches such as medications, Botox injections, magnesium, and other treatments. And if the level is low, replacement therapy should be tried.

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Ayurvedic medicine has many healthy aspects. However, a recent story on NPR described the risks involved with the traditional Ayurvedic medicines from India. A very high percentage of Ayurvedic supplements in the category called bhasmas sold in the US contains large amounts of lead and other toxic elements. There is a lot more to Ayurvedic medicine than these supplements, so it is important to separate dangerous parts from things like healthy diet, yoga, and other.

Unfortunately, the US government does not regulate supplements, so there is always a question of safety of these products, especially those made outside the US. The one exception is products made in Germany, where supplements are as strictly regulated as drugs (please note that Petadolex, a butterbur product is made in Germany, but is not allowed for sale there). Many patients ask me about not only Indian but also Chinese herbal medicines, which are often combined with acupuncture and other treatment methods. As a rule, I recommend avoiding products made in China or India, where quality controls are very poor. Instead, you should buy products made by major US manufacturers, although they do not make many traditional Chinese and Indian products. However, you cannot always count on products sold in major US store chains either – recently, herbal products sold at Walgreens, WalMart, Target and GNC were found to have no active ingredients. Thankfully, there were no toxic ingredients in those products.

The largest mass poisoning with a Chinese herbal dietary weight loss product occurred in Europe where 18 patients developed kidney failure and urinary cancer.

In summary, no matter how promising a Chinese or an Indian herbal product may sound, it is not worth the risk.

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Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a group of inherited disorders that are notable for excessive joint mobility with some people also having lax or stretchy skin, at times heart problems, and other symptoms. Headaches appear to be also very common.

We see Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in many of our migraine patients and most of our headache specialist colleagues also notice this association. However, there are very few studies that confirm this observation. One such study was recently presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society in Washington, DC. The research was performed at a cardiology clinic in Texas. They looked at the records of 139 patients who were referred to this clinic in a period of one year. Of these 139 patients with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, 90% were women and the average age was 32. Out of 139 patients, 70% suffered from headaches – 32% had tension-type, 26% had migraines, 9% had chronic migraines and 2% had sinus headaches. These numbers are much higher than what is seen in the general population, confirming clinical observations by headache specialists.

One form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome affects not only joints and ligaments, but also the heart. So, when see a migraine patients who also appears to have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, we also ask about symptoms related to the heart and if they are present refer such patients to a cardiologist.

Another presentation at the same meeting described a 23-year-old woman with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome who suddenly developed headaches that would worsen on standing up and improve on lying down. This is typical of headaches due to low cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure, which was confirmed by a spinal tap. The most common causes of low CSF pressure are a leak caused by a spinal tap done to diagnose a neurological disease or caused by a complication of epidural anesthesia. Spontaneous unprovoked leaks have also been reported. In this patient with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome the leak probably occurred because of the lax ligaments that surround the spinal canal and contain the CSF. The report describes the most accurate test to document such leaks, which is an MRI myelogram.

The treatment of CSF leaks begins with a blood patch procedure, but if it is ineffective, surgery is sometimes done to repair the leak. A recent report suggested that Botox could be effective for low spinal fluid pressure headaches.

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I recently gave Botox injections to my oldest patient – an 96-year-old man who is otherwise in excellent mental and physical health has been suffering from daily severe cervicogenic (neck-related) headaches for many years. He had tried pain killers, nerve blocks, radiofrequency ablation (destruction) of nerves in his neck, all with no relief. A month after being treated with Botox he reported having almost no headaches. I have also given Botox to a number of patients with chronic migraines in their 70s and 80s.

At the last scientific meeting of the American Headache Society Cleveland Clinic neurologists presented a report entitled, Safety and Efficacy of OnabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) for Chronic Migraines in the Elderly. They described 28 patients who were older than 65, had an average age of 73 and who were treated with Botox injections for their chronic migraine headaches. They compared the safety and efficacy of Botox injections in this group with that of 700 patients aged 18 to 65 who participated in PREEMPT II study of Botox for chronic migraine (one of the two studies that led to the FDA approval of Botox for chronic migraines, in which we also participated). There was no significant difference in side effects between the younger and the older groups, except for a slightly higher incidence of neck pain after the injections in the elderly. The improvement was also comparable – after Botox the elderly had 11 fewer headache days a month compared with 9 fewer days in the younger group.

In conclusion, while many migraine medications are more likely to cause side effects in the elderly, this is not the case with Botox. Also, Botox appears to be as effective in the elderly with chronic migraines as in younger patients.

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Looking for health advice is one of the most common reason people search the web. Many websites provide health information and some even offer self-diagnosis using a symptom checker. After entering all of the symptoms the website suggests a possible diagnosis and advises to take some home remedies or see a doctor. A study recently mentioned on this blog showed that Wikipedia had errors in 9 out of 10 articles on different medical conditions.

Another recent study by Harvard researchers examined the accuracy of the sites that offer self-diagnosis. Not surprisingly, this study also found that the online programs are often wrong. The results were published in the British Medical Journal.

The lead author Ateev Mehrotra, commented that “These tools may be useful in patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly, but in many cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel.”

Some of these symptom checkers were developed by prestigious institutions, including Harvard and other medical schools, major hospital groups, insurance companies, and some government agencies (including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service).

The researchers presented 45 hypothetical cases (including headaches) to test 23 different symptom checkers. Only 34% listed the correct diagnosis first and the correct diagnosis was in the top three possibilities in 51% of cases.

Dr. Mehrotra said that “It’s not nearly as important for a patient with fever, headache, stiff neck, and confusion to know whether they have meningitis or encephalitis as it is for them to know that they should get to an ER quickly.”

Of the 23 symptom checkers 58% provided correct advice and in more serious conditions, it correctly recommended emergency room visit in 80 percent of cases.

To complicate matters, the checkers with the most accurate diagnoses (Isabel, iTriage, Mayo Clinic, and Symcat) were not the ones that were best at recommending the appropriate level of care (, Steps2Care, and Symptify).

The researchers compared the online symptom checkers with a live telephone triage nurse offered by many insurance companies. The accuracy of live nurses is between 61% and 69%, so these are more accurate accurate, but also leave a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully, these online programs will continue to evolve, but at this point, you should not rely on them.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just released a new strengthened warning about NSAIDs. Prescription and over-the-counter NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen, nabumetone, diclofenac, and other) are widely used for the treatment of pain including different types of headaches. They are fairly safe, especially in young healthy people who take NSAIDs for an occasional headache. However, the risk of strokes and heart attacks and heart failure is higher in older people, especially those with risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and other. These risks are present with all NSAIDs, except for aspirin, which in fact can sometimes lower these risks. So, when in doubt, take aspirin, which is the main ingredient of my product, Migralex. Migralex is fast acting and is less likely to upset your stomach because of the buffering effect of magnesium. You can buy Migralex on,, and CVS stores.

Here is the full text of FDA’s announcement:

Safety Announcement
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is strengthening an existing label warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke. Based on our comprehensive review of new safety information, we are requiring updates to the drug labels of all prescription NSAIDs. As is the case with current prescription NSAID labels, the Drug Facts labels of over-the-counter (OTC) non-aspirin NSAIDs already contain information on heart attack and stroke risk. We will also request updates to the OTC non-aspirin NSAID Drug Facts labels.
Patients taking NSAIDs should seek medical attention immediately if they experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, weakness in one part or side of their body, or slurred speech.

NSAIDs are widely used to treat pain and fever from many different long- and short-term medical conditions such as arthritis, menstrual cramps, headaches, colds, and the flu. NSAIDs are available by prescription and OTC. Examples of NSAIDs include ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, and celecoxib (see Table 1 for a list of NSAIDs).

The risk of heart attack and stroke with NSAIDs, either of which can lead to death, was first described in 2005 in the Boxed Warning and Warnings and Precautions sections of the prescription drug labels. Since then, we have reviewed a variety of new safety information on prescription and OTC NSAIDs, including observational studies,1 a large combined analysis of clinical trials,2 and other scientific publications.1 These studies were also discussed at a joint meeting of the Arthritis Advisory Committee and Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee held on February 10-11, 2014.

Based on our review and the advisory committees’ recommendations, the prescription NSAID labels will be revised to reflect the following information:

The risk of heart attack or stroke can occur as early as the first weeks of using an NSAID. The risk may increase with longer use of the NSAID.
The risk appears greater at higher doses.
It was previously thought that all NSAIDs may have a similar risk. Newer information makes it less clear that the risk for heart attack or stroke is similar for all NSAIDs; however, this newer information is not sufficient for us to determine that the risk of any particular NSAID is definitely higher or lower than that of any other particular NSAID.
NSAIDs can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke in patients with or without heart disease or risk factors for heart disease. A large number of studies support this finding, with varying estimates of how much the risk is increased, depending on the drugs and the doses studied.
In general, patients with heart disease or risk factors for it have a greater likelihood of heart attack or stroke following NSAID use than patients without these risk factors because they have a higher risk at baseline.
Patients treated with NSAIDs following a first heart attack were more likely to die in the first year after the heart attack compared to patients who were not treated with NSAIDs after their first heart attack.
There is an increased risk of heart failure with NSAID use.
We will request similar updates to the existing heart attack and stroke risk information in the Drug Facts labels of OTC non-aspirin NSAIDs.
In addition, the format and language contained throughout the labels of prescription NSAIDs will be updated to reflect the newest information available about the NSAID class.

Patients and health care professionals should remain alert for heart-related side effects the entire time that NSAIDs are being taken.

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Hopefully, your doctor has given you many treatment options, so that you can manage even the most severe attacks at home (including Compazine or Phenergan anti-nausea suppositories for when you are very nauseated or vomit and Imitrex or sumatriptan injection pen for severe pain). However, many people end up in an ER, where they are usually given an injection or intravenous medications. Unfortunately, there is no standard protocol for the best way to treat an acute migraine that does not respond to oral medications. Ideally, the first step should be an infusion of magnesium, which can provide fast relief for up to 50% of patients. Some ER doctors give an injection of sumatriptan or a non-narcotic pain killer ketorolac (Toradol). Others will give a nausea drug which can also help pain such as metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compazine). An allergy medicine, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is also a popular choice.

A study by Dr. Benjamin Friedman and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein COllege of Medicine in the Bronx compared the efficacy of intravenous Reglan combined with Benadryl and Reglan without Benadryl. This was a double-blind study, meaning that neither the doctor giving the medicine nor the patient knew what was being given. They recruited 208 patients, which is a high enough number to produce reliable results. And the results showed that Reglan without Benadryl provided as much relief as with Benadryl.

Benadryl is not a dangerous drug, but can make you drowsy, so if you can, ask the doctor not to give it to you. It is not easy to tell a doctor what to do, especially during a severe migraine attack. But if doctor is agreeable, ask for intravenous magnesium followed by either sumatriptan or ketorolac injection as well as metoclopramide for nausea.

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For years researchers have tried to find ways to block various chemicals (neurotransmitters) released during a migraine attack, including serotonin, CGRP, nitric oxide, substance P, glutamate, and other. Triptans (such as IMitrex or sumatriptan), the first “designer” drugs for migraine, which were developed over 20 years ago, bind to a very specific subtype of serotonin receptor and are very effective in stopping a migraine attack.

A very promising new type of migraine medications is being developed by at least four different companies – Alder, Amgen, Eli Lily, and Teva. These drugs are monoclonal antibodies against the CGRP molecule or the CGRP receptor. CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) is widely distributed in the body and is involved in regulating blood vessel opening and in the function of the nervous system. All four companies developing these drugs recently presented the results of their phase II clinical trials and the data looks very promising. The antibody tightly binds to its target (CGRP molecule or receptor) with the effect lasting a month, or in case of the Alder drug, up to 6 months. The Alder drug is given every six months intravenously, while the other three, are given every month by an injection into the muscle.

All four drugs appear to be very effective in preventing migraine attacks when compared to a placebo injection. And fortunately, at least so far, they all look very safe. However, in phase II trials only a couple of hundred patients are treated and we need to await the results of the larger and more definitive phase III trials to confirm the safety and efficacy of this new group of medications. This means that the earliest we will see these drugs approved by the FDA is in about 3 years.

It is possible that these drugs will be effective not only for the prevention of migraines, but also for stopping an acute migraine attack.

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An opening between the left and the right side of the heart, called patent foramen ovale (PFO), is found in 25% of the general population. It has been found to be more common in people who suffer from migraines. A large PFOs can cause shortness of breath, heart failure, and strokes and they are usually closed surgically. Several companies developed a device to close this opening without open heart surgery, but rather by inserting an umbrella-like device through a vein in the groin.

The manufacturers of these devices have conducted clinical trials in the hope of preventing migraines by closing the PFO. The results so far have been mixed with some studies showing improvement in migraines and some showing no benefit. A study just presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society by Dr. Andrew Charles of UCLA and his colleagues reported on one such trial. This study was blinded, with 107 patients having a sham procedure (the catheter was inserted into the groin vein, but the PFO was not closed) and 123 having their PFO closed. Overall, there was a significant reduction in headache days in the closure group (-3.4 days) compared with the sham group (-2.0 days), however there was no difference in the primary efficacy endpoint of the number of patients with 50% or more reduction in migraine attacks.

A subset of patients did particularly well compared to the sham group – patients who had migraine aura with the majority of their migraine attacks. A significant reduction in migraine days was present in half of patients with aura compared with a quarter in the control group. About 11% (8 out of 74 patients) of those who had migraine with aura had complete elimination of migraine attacks, while this happened to only 1.5% (1 out of 68 patients) in the sham group with auras.

This study suggests that patients who have auras with the majority of their migraine attacks and whose migraines are difficult to control should undergo an echocardiogram to test for the possible presence of a PFO. If PFO is present, it may be reasonable to consider seeing an interventional cardiologist to close the PFO. This is a relatively safe procedure if done by an experienced doctor and that is a very important if. Pick a doctor who has done a hundred or more of these procedures.

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Several presentations at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society held in Washington DC last weekend discussed the treatment of post-concussion symptoms in children (everything below also applies to adults). Among many topics, the speakers addressed the question of aerobic exercise after the concussion. Most experts agree that starting physical exercise too early can worsen the symptoms and delay recovery. At the same time, because aerobic exercise has so many benefits for the brain, it is prudent to begin aerobic exercise 2 to 4 weeks after the concussion. The child should begin exercising for short periods of time and at low intensity. Exercise should be stopped as soon as symptoms, such as headache or dizziness worsen. Brisk walking could be the first activity to be tried. The ideal duration is about 30 minutes and when this goal is achieved, the intensity of exercise can be gradually increased.

As far as the very common cognitive problems after a concussion, the experts also agreed that complete cognitive rest is not helpful. Just like with physical exercise, it is best to begin mild activities, such as reading for pleasure, and then slowly increase the load, as tolerated.

Several scientific presentations reported that the most common type of headaches that occurs after a concussion is migraine. When these post-concussion migraines last for more than 3 months and occur on more than 15 days each month, they are considered to be chronic migraines.

The treatment of post-concussion chronic migraines is the same as the treatment of chronic migraines that occur without a concussion. These treatments may include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, magnesium and other supplements (magnesium deficiency is found in up to 50% of migraine sufferers and magnesium is depleted by trauma), various preventive medications, and Botox injections.

Although the FDA has not yet approved Botox injections for the treatment of chronic migraines in children, Botox is safer than most drugs. We know about the safety of Botox in children because it has been widely used even in very young children who suffer from cerebral palsy and are unable to walk unless their stiff leg muscles are relaxed by Botox. Botox was approved by the FDA 26 years ago and some kids have been getting injections for over 20 years and so far there have been no long-term side effects observed.

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Zolmitriptan is one of seven triptans available in the US and it comes in tablets (Zomig), orally disintegrating tablets, that is tablets that melt in your mouth (Zomig ZMT), and nasal spray (Zomig NS). The nasal spray was just approved for children 12 and older. It is available in 2.5 mg and 5 mg strength and the 2.5 mg is the starting dose, but kids are allowed to take 5 mg dose up to twice a day.

My previous post mentioned the approval of Treximet, a combination of sumatriptan (Imitrex) and naproxen (Aleve) in adolescents. However, Zomig is the only triptan in a nasal spray form (the second triptan available in a nasal spray is sumatriptan or Imitrex) approved in the US for children. The advantages of this form of drug delivery is that it tends to have faster onset of action and it can be taken when severe nausea or vomiting precludes the use of oral medications. Sumatriptan nasal spray is approved in kids in Europe, so there is no reason not to use it as well, however Zomig spray seems to be better than Imitrex spray. The amount of fluid in a single dose of Zomig is less than that in Imitrex and the spray droplets are of smaller size, leading to better retention of fluid in nasal passages and better absorption. Also, many patients complain of a very unpleasant taste with Imitrex spray, although this can be avoided by sucking on a hard candy while spraying. This will carry the saliva out of the mouth down the throat and the drug will not reach the mouth. When using nasal sprays it is important not to sniff them up your nose because this will carry the medicine into the throat rather than having it stay in the nose where it gets absorbed faster.

Since we are on the topic of nasal sprays, I should mention three other nasal sprays that can be used to treat headaches. Migranal nasal spray contains dihydroergotamine, which is one of the strongest injectable migraine medications. However it is a lot less effective in a nasal spray form. Sprix is a nasal spray of ketorolac (Toradol), a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which is also much stronger when injected. It is also available in a tablet, but the tablet is not any stronger than aspirin or ibuprofen. The third nasal spray is Stadol NS and it contains butorphanol, a strong narcotic pain killer. It should be avoided because it is very addictive.

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A combination pill containing 10 mg of sumatriptan with 60 mg of naproxen sodium was just approved by the FDA for children aged 12 to 17. This combination in a higher dose (85 mg of sumatriptan and 500 mg of naproxen) has been available for adults for the past 7 years. This recent FDA approval allows children to take up to one adult strength tablet a day. It is good to have a smaller size tablet for kids. However, there is a big issue of cost. We don’t yet know what the pediatric strength tablet will cost, but a single tablet of the adult strength Treximet is $75. Yes, $75 for one tablet, even with a coupon you can get at and $80 or more without a coupon. Very few insurance companies will pay for Treximet because you can get a generic tablet of sumatriptan (Imitrex), 100 mg for $1.50 and a tablet of naproxen, 500 mg for 7 cents. So, make-your-own Treximet will cost you $1.57. A very rare patient will tell me that they get better relief from the branded pill, which is possible because of the inactive ingredients, speed of onset and occasionally poor quality generics (I wrote about this problem in a previous post). However, such patients are very few.

Besides Treximet, we have two other triptans approved for migraines in children. Rizatriptan (Maxalt, Maxalt MLT) is approved by the FDA for children and adolescents 6 to 17 years of age and it is available in a generic form. Almotriptan (Axert) is approved in adolescents, 12 – 17 years of age, but it is available only as a branded drug ($40 a pill). In the UK, 10 mg sumatriptan nasal spray (Imitrex in the US, Imigran in the UK) was approved for adolescents, ages 12-17, who suffer from migraine and cluster headaches. In the US, we have only 5 and 20 mg nasal sprays of sumatriptan, and both are available in a generic form. Sumatriptan and zolmitriptan (Zomig, Zomig ZMT – orally disintegrating tablet, Zomig NS – nasal spray) were also tested in kids. The reason these two drugs were not approved is because the placebo response in kids tends to be very high and the active treatment was not distinguishable from placebo. This is mostly because headaches in children tend to be shorter in duration and the headache goes away on their own in a couple of hours, making it difficult to separate the active drug from placebo. However, they are probably as effective and as safe as the triptans approved in pediatric patients.

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Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was approved by the FDA at the end of 2013 (see my earlier post) but it has not yet become available. This approval was for the treatment of acute migraine.

A new study just presented at the International Headache Congress suggests that TMS could be effective for the preventive treatment of migraines with medication overuse headache.

The study included only 28 patients and it was not a blinded study. However, these patients were severely affected and failed several other treatments. They were instructed to use the TMS device twice a day every day with an additional treatment at the time of a headache. Treatment lasted for at least 3 months, with an option to continue for another 3 months.

Of the 28 patients, 24 (86%) reported a reduction in their days of acute medication use per month, while 2 patients reported an increase in acute medication use. Nineteen patients (68%) experienced fewer migraine days per month, and 7 of the 19 had a 50% or greater reduction in migraine days. The number of patients with pain severity rated as excruciating or severe dropped from 19 at baseline to 3 at 3 months (84% reduction). Headache attack duration decreased in 15 patients, remained unchanged in 9, and increased in 4. The disability score (HIT-6) was severe at the beginning of the study in 26 of 28 participants. After 3 months, only 18 had severe disability.

The benefit was seen in patients who had migraines with and without aura.

After 3 months, five patients stopped using TMS because it was ineffective or inconvenient. Four were lost to follow-up. Of the remaining 19, 16 reported reduced days of acute medication use at 6 months, compared with baseline. Disability scores in the 19 patients who used TMS for 6 months were comparable to their scores at 3 months, suggesting that there was no additional benefit from longer-term use, but the benefit was maintained.

No side effects were reported, confirming the safety of TMS. Now we just have to wait for the company (eNeura) to release this product on the market.

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We are again in a cluster season. We do not see any cluster headache patients for months and then dozens come in within weeks. It is not allergies, barometric pressure or any other earth phenomena that trigger cluster headaches in so many people at once. It has been speculated that solar activity may be the trigger and I just checked the NASAs Solar Dynamics Observatory website and found that the sun has “active regions galore”. I wrote about solar activity as a possible culprit last October when we had another wave of cluster patients. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about the sun, but we do have many effective treatments for cluster headaches, including intravenous magnesium, occipital nerve blocks, oxygen, injectable sumatriptan, verapamil, and for chronic cluster headaches, Botox injection.

A recent study by British neurologists in the journal Headache described the severe impact of cluster headaches on quality of life and neuro-psychological symptoms. The researchers found that cluster headache patients had normal intelligence and executive functions, but had worse working memory, disturbance of mood, and poorer quality of life compared with healthy controls. Similar findings have been found in patients with other chronic pain conditions as well. It is most likely that cognitive impairment and mood changes can be reversed with effective treatment of pain.

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Another supplement to consider for the preventive treatment of migraine headaches is diamine oxidase (DAO). It is an enzyme that breaks down histamine.

Histamine is released during an allergic reaction and is present in many foods. It is one of the neurotransmitters that is involved in the process of migraine. A quarter of the population has insufficient amounts of DAO, which leads to inefficient metabolism of histamine. The largest amounts of DAO in the body are found in the intestines and the kidneys.

A group of Spanish neurologists published a study that showed that of 137 patients with migraines, 119 (87%) showed impaired activity of the enzyme.

The normal enzyme activity is a score of at least 80 histamine-degrading units [HDU]/mL. In a survey which was conducted in 2006 and again in 2012, migraine symptom scores correlated with enzyme activity. Symptom scores rose progressively as enzyme activity dropped below 80 HDU/mL, with scores almost twice as high in the 30-40 HDU/mL range compared with enzyme activity >80 HDU/mL.

Dr. Izquierdo and his colleagues in Barcelona conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of DAO oral supplementation, for the prevention of migraines in patients with DAO activity less than 80 HDU/mL.

Participants were men or women age 18 to 60 years old with an attack within the previous 6 months. Most of the patients were women, with only 8 men in each group.

The supplement contained 4.2 mg of DAO which participants took with a glass of water before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The supplement was associated with a similar reduction in the mean number of attacks per month in the placebo and DAO groups, but the group that took DAO used significantly fewer triptan drugs (such as sumatriptan, Imitrex). These results are not overwhelming, but they possibly hide the fact that some of these patients had a very good response while others had none, which averaged out to a modest benefit. Considering that this a very benign supplement with no potential for serious side effects (unlike prescription drugs), it may be worth trying.

Histamine intolerance is defined by an imbalance of histamine and the histamine degrading enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO), which is mainly produced in the small intestine. Excessive amounts of histamine in the body can cause not only migraine and other types of headaches, but also diarrhea, nasal congestion, asthma, rashes, and other symptoms. People who are prone to severe allergic reactions with anaphylactic shock often have lower DAO activity. Diamine oxidase activity can be measured in blood, but the test is expensive and not very reliable. Instead of doing this test, try a low histamine diet or taking a DAO supplement. This is particularly worthwhile for people who in addition to migraines suffer from colitis (such as Crohn’s), allergic conditions, asthma, and celiac disease.

Here is an informative post on this topic on The Daily Headache blog.

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Tension headaches can be prevented, or at least made milder by strength training, according to a new Danish study just published in the journal of the International Headache Society, Cephalalgia.

Tension-type headache is the most common type of headaches and it is usually accompanied by increased muscle tenderness.

The researchers compared muscle strength in neck and shoulder muscles in 60 patients with tension-type headaches and 30 healthy controls, using rigorous strength measurement techniques. Patients were included if they had tension-type headaches on more than 8 days per month and had no more than 3 migraines a month. Compared to controls headache patients had significantly weaker muscle strength in neck extension, which helps keep the head straight. Headache patients also showed a tendency toward significantly lower muscle strength in shoulder muscles. Among the 60 headache patients, 25 had frequent headaches and 35 had chronic tension-type headaches (defined as occurring on 15 or more days each month).

The use of computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones has increased in recent years and this may increase the time people are sitting with a forward leaning head posture, which contributes to neck muscle weakness.

Neck pain and tenderness is a common symptom in both tension-type and migraine headache sufferers.

This is not the first study to show that muscle strength and weakness were associated with tension-type headaches, but it is still not clear whether the muscle weakness is the cause or the effect of headaches. Neck and shoulder strengthening exercises have been shown to reduce neck pain in previous studies and in my experience strengthening neck muscles will often relieve not only tension-type headaches, but also migraines. So it is most likely that there is not a clear cause-and-effect relationship, but a vicious cycle of neck pain causing headaches and headaches causing worsening of neck pain and neck muscle weakness.

Physical therapy can help, but the mainstay of treatment is strengthening neck exercises. Here is a YouTube video showing how to do them. The exercise takes less than a minute, but needs to be repeated many times throughout the day (10 or more). Many people have difficulty remembering to do them, so using your cell phone alarm can help. Other treatment measures include being aware of your posture when sitting in front of a computer or when using your smart phone, wearing a head set if you spend long periods of time on the phone, doing yoga or other upper body exercises, in addition to the isometrics.

Sometimes pain medications or muscle relaxants are necessary, while for very severe pain, nerve blocks and trigger point injections can help. Persistent neck pain can respond to Botox injections. When treating chronic migraines with Botox, the standard protocol includes injections of neck and shoulder/upper back muscles. Here is a video of a typical Botox treatment procedure for chronic migraines.

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While Botox (OnabotulinumtoxinA) has been shown to be effective in treating chronic migraines, its exact mechanism of action is not clear. Initially, we thought that it works by relaxing muscles in the forehead, temples and the back of the head and neck. However, this is not likely for several reasons. One reason is that some people have pain at the top of their heads, where there are no muscle, and injecting those areas leads relief of pain. Another reason is that Botox seems to be effective in relieving different nerve pains, such as that of shingles (post-herpetic neuralgia), trigeminal neuralgia, and other.

Botox blocks the release of acetylcholine, a neurotrasmitter that is normally released into the space between the nerve ending and the muscle (synapse), making the muscle contract. We also know that Botox blocks the release of other neurotransmitters, which may be responsible for its pain-relieving properties. One of these chemical messengers is CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide).

A study just published in the journal Pain by Spanish researchers showed that CGRP level is increased in blood of patients with chronic migraine even when they are not having a migraine attack. CGRP levels were determined in 83 patients with chronic migraines (average age 44 years; 94% females) before and 1 month after treatment with 155 to 195 units of Botox. CGRP levels after Botox treatment were significantly lower as compared with CGRP levels obtained before Botox treatment. Pretreatment CGRP levels in responders were significantly higher than those seen in nonresponders. One month after treatment, the CGRP levels did not change in nonresponders, but significantly decreased in responders. Demographic factors, clinical features, and comorbidities (co-existing medical conditions) were not different in responders as compared with those of nonresponders. The authors concluded that “These results confirmed that CGRP levels can be of help in predicting the response to Botox and suggest that the mechanism of action of Botox in chronic migraine is the reversal of sensitization as a result of the inhibition of CGRP release.”

Unfortunately, the test to measure CGRP levels is not yet available outside research laboratories and because this was a small study we do not know how accurate this test will be. It has to tells us with greater than 90% which migraine sufferer will respond. If it is less than 90% accurate, we’d be denying over 10% of patients a very effective and often life-altering treatment. Some studies also suggested that we can predict who will respond and who will not by the description of pain. That is, if the pain is squeezing, crushing from outside in, or involves the eye, then the chances of response are better than if the pain is exploding, or from inside out. The accuracy of this predictor is less than 70%, so it should not be used to screen for potential non-responders.

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A topical cream seems to be effective in treating migraine headaches. Achelios Therapeutics announced results from a Phase IIa placebo-controlled clinical trial in moderate and severe migraine sufferers treated with Topofen, the company’s proprietary topical anti-migraine therapy. This is a well-known non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) ketoprofen, which is applied to the face and seems to provide relief for patients suffering from acute migraine.

The results of the clinical trial were presented at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Surprisingly, this study showed that it may be possible to relieve severe migraine with a topical application to facial nerve endings. Topical application avoids potentially serious side effects of NSAIDs, such as stomach bleeding and ulcers. The randomized, crossover, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved only 48 adults with a history of episodic migraine with and without aura. Of the severe migraine patients, 77 percent experienced relief of pain and migraine-associated symptoms and 45 percent had sustained pain relief from two to 24 hours compared to 15 percent on placebo. Also, 50 percent of patients who treated their severe pain with Topofen were pain free at 24 hours compared to 25 percent of placebo-treated patients. Some patients experienced application-site irritation, which was mild or moderate in severity. That was the only reported side effect, which resolved quickly.

Such a small study does not prove that this treatment is in fact effective. A typical drug trial required for an FDA approval usually involves hundreds of patients. However, you do not need to wait for this cream to appear on the market because there are creams containing an NSAID already available by prescription (Voltaren Gel) and over-the-counter (Aspercreme). It is possible that the cream tested in the study may be better because it is a different NSAID, but Voltaren Gel is already approved and you can ask your doctor for a prescription. It is possible that insurance companies will not pay for it since it is not approved for migraines. A tube of Voltaren Gel will cost you about $55 (go to to get the lowest price).

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The FDA-approved protocol for Botox injections for chronic migraines calls for 31 injections with 155 units of Botox. This is the protocol we teach young doctors and new injectors.

However, just like with any other medication, doctors are allowed to go “off label”, meaning that we can inject Botox for headache types and pain conditions other than chronic migraine (in which case insurance will usually not pay) and we can also adjust the number of injection sites and the total dose of Botox when treating patients with chronic migraines. I have a fair number of patients who need up to 200 units and on a very rare occasion even 300. The maximum dose allowed during a single treatment is 400 units, which is usually needed when injecting large muscles in arms and legs, like in cerebral palsy or spasticity due to strokes.

This YouTube video shows injections for chronic migraines with additional injections into the masseter muscles (at the corner of the jaw) to treat TMJ syndrome, which is also called temporomandibular disorder. Injections of the temporalis muscles in the temples, which are also involved in chewing and which are always injected for chronic migraines, also helps relieve TMJ syndrome.

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Low vitamin D level predicts larger stroke size and poor outcome, according to a new study by University of Massachusetts researchers. They examined data on 96 consecutive patients with stroke and found a strong inverse correlation between the level of vitamin D and the size of the stroke. This is not surprising since vitamin D seems to be very important for the normal functioning of the nervous system. In a previous post I mentioned a study that showed an inverse correlation between vitamin D level and relapses of multiple sclerosis. Such correlation has been also found with migraine headaches and other major diseases.

Yes, all these studies are correlational and do not prove that taking vitamin D will prevent any of these conditions. But there is no evidence at all that taking vitamin D to maintain your blood level in the normal range has any side effects.

The stroke study was done only in caucasian patients and we know that blacks may need lower levels of vitamin D than caucasians, at least as measured by the standard blood test. This test is not very reliable since it measures the total level of vitamin D, while only the free portion of it is biologically active. To be safe, try to aim to have vitamin D level at least in the middle of normal range, which is from 30 to 100. Many people take the recommended 400 unit dose of vitamin D, but still have low levels in their blood. It is important to check your vitamin D level even if you are taking a supplement. Some patients require 2,000 and even 5,000 units daily to get their blood level to the middle of normal range.

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Topiramate (Topamax) is a drug used for the prevention of migraine headaches (and epilepsy) in adults and last year it was also approved for adolescent migraine sufferers. This drug is notorious for causing cognitive side effects, kidney stones,osteoporosis, overheating, and many other side effects. It is contraindicated (just like another migraine drug, Depakote) in pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.

A new report published in the journal Pediatrics documents an increased risk of eating disorders in adolescents who take Topamax. This report describes 7 female teenagers who developed an eating disorder or whose eating disorder got worse on topiramate.

Considering that we have many other effective preventive drugs for migraine headaches, topiramate should be used only when several other treatments fail.

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Chronic migraine sufferers appear to be more likely to have dryness of their eyes, according to a study by ophthalmologists at the University of Utah, which was published in the journal Headache. The researchers used sophisticated techniques to measure tear production, corneal sensitivity, dry eye questionnaire, and other tests. The results of these tests were compared in migraine sufferers and healthy control subjects.

A total of 19 chronic migraine patients and 30 control participants completed the study. The nerve fiber density was significantly lower in the corneas of migraine patients compared with controls. All migraine sufferers had symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of dry eye syndrome. The researchers plan to continue studying the interrelationships between migraine, corneal nerve architecture, and dry eye.

Similar findings in patients with episodic migraine were published by a group of Turkish doctors in the journal Cornea in 2012.

Migraine sufferers and their doctors should be aware of this correlation since irritation caused by dry eyes could potentially trigger a migraine. It is possible that some migraines can be prevented by using over-the-counter and prescription eye drops or, in severe cases, eye inserts (Lacrisert). High doses of omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to help dry eyes and omega-3 fatty acids have also been reported to relieve migraines.

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Cluster headaches cause more severe pain than any other type of headaches. Some patients even call them suicide headaches because they provoke thoughts of suicide. The name comes from the fact that they occur in clusters – every day for a couple of months and then they go away for a year or longer. In those with chronic cluster headaches they never go away. The headaches are brief – anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. They are always one-sided, with pain usually around the eye, and are accompanied by tearing, nasal congestion, and sometimes restlessness. More men than women suffer from them.

Treatment of cluster headaches can be very effective. A 10-day course of prednisone or an occipital nerve block can abort the entire cluster. We also have preventive drugs, such as a blood pressure medicine, verapamil (used in high doses), epilepsy drugs, and lithium. These are taken daily to prevent headaches. To treat individual attacks, inhalation of 100% oxygen under high flow, zolmitriptan nasal spray (Zomig NS), and sumatriptan (Imitrex) injections can be true life savers.

Some of the alternative therapies that have been reported to help include melatonin, intranasal capsaicin (hot pepper extract), and an herbal product, Boswellia (Nature’s Way is a good brand for herbals).

Unfortunately, there are some cluster headache sufferers who do not respond to any of these treatments. We even treated some patients with intravenous histamine, which requires hospital admission and two of my patients were implanted with a vagus nerve stimulator (with good relief).

Some cluster patients have been found to have low testosterone levels and treating them with testosterone seems to help.

This testosterone connection led to trials of a fertility drug, clomiphene citrate (Clomid). Clomiphene enhances testosterone production and binds to hypothalamic estrogen receptors, which is why it was considered as a treatment for cluster headaches. A second case of successful treatment of cluster headaches with Clomid has just appeared in the journal Headache. This was a case of a 65-year-old man with a 17-year history of chronic cluster headaches who did not respond or had significant side effects to many cluster headache preventive medications including verapamil, lithium, valproic acid, topiramate, baclofen as well as greater occipital nerve blocks and inpatient hospitalization.

The patient experienced 3-5 headaches per day. On Clomid (100 mg/day) he became 100% pain-free and remained so for three and half years with only mild fatigue as a side effect. He then had cluster headache recurrence and did well on gabapentin for another 3 years, but then his headaches returned. Clomiphene was restarted, and he became pain-free once again.

Clomid should be considered when the usual preventive drugs for cluster headaches are ineffective.

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Chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers have endured years of neglect and sometimes ridicule. The condition has even been called “yuppie flu”. Informal surveys indicate that half of the doctors do not believe that this is a true physical disease. This is despite the fact that 1 to 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with this condition. In a previous post I mentioned that patients with chronic fatigue are much more likely to suffer from migraines – they occur in 84% of patients. Tension-type headaches were found in 81% and only 4% had no headaches at all.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome is a physical condition and one of the names that has been used by doctors is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. The Institute of Medicine recently issued a report, Beyond Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Redefining an Illness, which proposes a new name – Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease, or SEID. The name indicates that the main characteristic of the disease is the fact that exertion of any kind – physical, cognitive, or emotional – can affect many different body organs and impair normal functioning and reduce quality of life. The report also states that to make this diagnosis, the symptoms have to be chronic, frequent and moderate or severe in intensity. The experts suggest that patients could be diagnosed with both SEID and Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, or another disease that causes fatigue. Currently, if a patient suffers from Lyme disease or another fatiguing condition, chronic fatigue is not added as a separate disease. The report also noted that the prognosis is not very good – many people continue to suffer from SEID for many years.

Fibromyalgia, another condition which was thought to be purely psychological, now has three medications approved to treat it (Lyrica, Cymbalta, and Savella), which has led more doctors treat it as a real disease. Unfortunately, there are no drugs approved for chronic fatigue or SEID.

Here are the specific diagnostic criteria for SEID established by the Institute of Medicine:
– Reduction or impairment in the ability to carry out normal daily activities, accompanied by profound fatigue
– Post-exertional malaise
– Unrefreshing sleep
In addition, diagnosis requires one of the following symptoms:
– Cognitive impairment
– Orthostatic intolerance (difficulty standing up and being in an upright position).

I would add that to make this diagnosis, other known potential causes of fatigue should be ruled out. These include thyroid disease, anemia, chronic infections (Lyme and other), vitamin B12 and other deficiencies. As mentioned in a previous post, the test for vitamin B12 is not very accurate. Many laboratories list normal levels being between 200 and 1,000. However, many patients with levels below 400, and some even with levels above 400 still have a deficiency. If a deficiency is strongly suspected, additional tests are needed – homocysteine and methylmalonic acid levels.

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Narcotics are not only ineffective for the treatment of headaches, but they can also make headaches worse and transform an episodic migraine into chronic. A study mentioned in a previous post showed that more than half of migraine sufferers who went to an ER were given a narcotic.

A new study recently published in the journal of the International Headache Society, Cephalalgia showed that if patients presenting with a headache to an ER are treated with an injection of opiates (narcotics) they will stay in the hospital longer than if no narcotics are given. This treatment also leads to an increased risk of return visits to the emergency department within seven days.

The study was conducted by two neurologists, Dr. McCarthy at Puget Sound VA Healthcare System in Seattle and Dr. Cowan at Stanford University in California. They examined charts of 574 people and discovered that 23% received a narcotic when they were seen at an emergency department. Only 53% were given an injection of a drug recommended by a published consensus of headache experts. These include sumatriptan (Imitrex, the only injectable triptan), prochlorperazine (Compazine), metoclopramide (Reglan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), ketorolac (Toradol), aspirin, acetaminophen, and dihydroergotamine. The remaining 24% were given an injection of another non-narcotic drug.

Patients who were given opiates were 4 times more likely to have a long stay, compared with patients given first-line recommended medications. 69 participants had at least one readmission for headache, of whom 20 returned to the emergency department within seven days. Interestingly, patients who had a CAT or an MRI scan of the brain had a significantly higher rate of early return visits, compared with those who did not have neuroimaging. Approximately 8% of people given opiates had early return visits, compared with 3% of patients given first-line recommended drugs.

Dr. McCarthy was quoted saying that “Opiates have shown less headache pain reduction, higher rates of headache recurrence, and increased sedation, compared with first-line recommended specific headache medications”. He added that regardless of whether the acute headache was diagnosed as a migraine or a tension-type headache, it is likely to respond to most non-narcotic injectable treatments.

An editorial accompanying this article concluded that “The most important intervention emergency physicians can deliver for their headache patients is to connect them with outpatient physicians savvy about headache management, who will then provide these headache patients with appropriate acute therapeutics, initiate preventive therapy, and counsel their patients against receiving opioids in the emergency department”.

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The existence of gluten sensitivity has been long denied by the mainstream medical establishment. A study described in a previous post over two years ago documented higher incidence of migraine headaches in people with gluten sensitivity than in those with celiac disease (56% vs 30%). Celiac disease, which is a severe autoimmune disease caused by wheat allergy, affects about 3 million Americans, but the estimates of gluten sensitivity run as high as 18 million. Billions of dollars of gluten-free products are sold in the US and they can be found in almost every grocery store.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health led by Dr. Sabatino examined 59 patients who did not have celiac disease, but believed gluten-containing food was causing them intestinal and other symptoms. Every day for one week these people were randomly given capsules containing 5 grams of gluten or a placebo of rice starch. After only one week, those who were taking the gluten pills reported a significant difference in symptoms compared to those who took non-gluten placebo pills. In addition to intestinal pains, they felt abdominal bloating, a foggy mind, depression, and canker sores. Clearly, they didn’t know if they were taking the gluten pill or the placebo, but their symptoms were very revealing and proved the existence of gluten sensitivity.

The bottom line is, if you have stomach pains, bloating, foggy mind, depression, headaches, malaise, and other symptoms, it may be worth going on a gluten-free diet for a couple of weeks to see if your symptoms improve. Unfortunately, we do not have any tests to document this condition, so this is the only way to find out if you have gluten sensitivity.

We do have tests for celiac disease – this condition can be detected by a blood test and an intestinal biopsy done through an endoscopy. However, despite the availability of these tests, even this severe form of gluten sensitivity is diagnosed in only one out of six Americans who suffer from it. And the number of cases of celiac, just like with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, are going up. The incidence of celiac is now five times higher than 50 years ago.

Stomach pains and bloating are the most common symptoms of celiac, but a recent review in JAMA Pediatrics, lists other symptoms, including persistent or intermittent constipation, vomiting, poor appetite, weight loss or growth delay in children, fatigue, anemia, dental problems, canker sores, arthritis and joint pains, bone loss and fractures, short stature, delayed puberty, unexplained infertility and miscarriage, recurring headaches, loss of feeling in hands and feet, poor coordination and unsteadiness, epileptic seizures, depression, hallucinations, anxiety and panic attacks. Many of these symptoms are the result of poor absorption of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and other because of the damaged intestinal lining.

Those with celiac disease are more sensitive to even minute amounts of gluten than people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

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Doctors in St. Louis, MO examined how well headaches are treated in children. There has been little research about how well doctors in the US care for children and teens with migraine and if the treatment is consistent with evidence-based guidelines. They also assessed how often opioids (narcotics) are prescribed for children with migraines. The study used Electronic Health Record data to look at how almost 40,000 children and teens with migraine who presented to primary care providers, specialty care, or Emergency Room or Urgent Care (ER/UC) across four states in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas were treated from 2009-2014.

The results showed that among children and teens presenting for care for migraine or likely migraine, nearly half (46%) were not prescribed or recommended any medication. Only one in six (16%) were prescribed or recommended an evidence-based medication. Among those who received medication, nearly one in six (16%) were prescribed an opiod (narcotic), and these numbers are even higher among teens 15-17.

The findings also revealed that the odds of getting an evidence-based medication were significantly higher if migraine was diagnosed, and the odds of getting any medication (evidence-based or not) were higher in non-metropolitan areas. Children and teens treated in a specialty care setting or the ER/UC were twice as likely to be prescribed an opioid than if treated in primary care.

The authors concluded that “Too many children who present for migraine or likely migraine are not getting any medication for their pain. Too few are receiving care consistent with evidence-based guidelines. And far too many are being prescribed an opiod. Five out of six children and teens are receiving suboptimal migraine care. A significant need exists to increase doctor awareness of the benefits of optimal migraine care and the potential dangers of prescribing opioids for children and teens with migraine.”

Guidelines issued by many medical organizations call for the use of ibuprofen as the first line treatment, however most children with severe migraines need to take a triptan. Triptans include sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt), zolmitriptan (Zomig), and four other similar drugs. Rizatriptan has been shown to be effective in children as young as 6, while other triptans have been approved for children older than 12. It is very likely that, just like in adults, some children respond better to one triptan and several triptans may need to be tried to find the best one. Just because the FDA approved one triptan for children above the age of 6 and another above the age of 12, it does not mean that there is a significant difference among the seven available triptans. These are safe drugs that have been in use for over 20 years and several of them are available in Europe without a prescription.

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Several million Americans suffer from chronic migraines, headaches that occur on at least half of the days and often daily.

A new study suggests one of the way to prevent this disabling disease. In the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study, people with episodic migraines (those occurring on less than half of the day each month) completed the Migraine Treatment Optimization Questionnaire and provided outcome data in 2006 and in 2007. They were asked four questions about the efficacy of their acute migraine therapies and the responses were divided into: very poor, poor, moderate, and maximum treatment efficacy.

Among 5,681 study participants with episodic migraine in 2006, 3.1% progressed to chronic migraine in 2007. Only 1.9% of the group with maximum treatment efficacy developed chronic migraine. Rates of new-onset chronic migraine increased in the moderate treatment efficacy (2.7%), poor treatment efficacy (4.4%), and very poor treatment efficacy (6.8%) groups. The very poor treatment efficacy group had a more than 2-fold increased risk of new-onset chronic migraine compared to the maximum treatment efficacy group.

The authors concluded that inadequate acute treatment efficacy was associated with an increased risk of new-onset chronic migraine over the course of 1 year. They speculated that improving acute treatment outcomes might prevent chronic migraine. However, they also said that reverse causality cannot be excluded, meaning that it is possible that those who would go on to develop chronic migraine had poor response to acute treatment because their headaches were worse and that they would develop chronic migraine regardless of how well their acute treatment worked. However, it makes a lot of sense to assume that effective treatment of individual attacks may prevent headaches from becoming chronic, especially because we know that each migraine attack leaves the brain more excitable for weeks and this makes the next attack more likely.

Effective treatment of acute attacks usually involves the use of triptans, (drugs like sumatriptan, or Imitrex, eletriptan, or Relpax, rizatriptan or Maxalt, and other), although NSAIDs, such as aspirin, iboprofen and other can also help, both alone or in a combination with a triptan. Medications that should not be used are drugs such as Fioricet or Fiorinal (butalbital, caffeine, and acetaminophen / aspirin), codeine, Percocet (oxycodone / acetaminophen), Vicodin (hydrocodone / acetaminophen). These drugs are not only ineffective, but can make it more likely that episodic migraines will turn into chronic. This also applies to other caffeine-containing drugs (Excedrin and other) and even dietary caffeine.

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The new dietary guidelines issued by a government advisory committee have many positive changes from the old guidelines. These include a focus on food rather than nutrients. For example, there is no proposed limit on the intake of cholesterol and eating eggs is encouraged. There is an emphasis on eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables and on limiting sugar intake. All these recommendations apply to headache sufferers as well.

However, the guidelines are advising people to increase their consumption of coffee. They suggest that 3 to 5 cups a day can be part of a healthy diet because there is evidence that coffee may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (and possibly Parkinson’s disease). This is because coffee contains flavonoid compounds that have health benefits. However, coffee and caffeine in general are proven to cause worsening of headaches. As little as 2-3 cups a day can worsen headaches by causing caffeine withdrawal. Flavonoids are present in many fruits and vegetables, so it is not necessary to drink coffee to benefit from these compounds. If you are prone to having headaches it is better to limit your caffeine intake to one cup of coffee a day.

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The Journal of Nutrition just published a study that suggests life-extending benefits of taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Multivitamin with minerals products are the most commonly used supplements in the United States, followed by multivitamin products without minerals. While prior studies did not show an effect of such supplements in preventing deaths from cardiovascular disease, however, no previous trial looked for potential benefits just in women.

This new study examined the effect of a multivitamin with or without minerals on 8678 men and women. An adjustment was made for many potential confounders, that is factors that could have influenced the results, including age, race, education, weight (body mass index), alcohol, aspirin use, serum lipids (cholesterol, etc), blood pressure, and blood glucose.

The researchers observed no significant association between mortality due to cardiovascular disease in users of supplements compared with nonusers. However, when users were classified by the reported length of time products were used, a significant association was found with the use of multivitamins with minerals if they were taken for more than three years, compared with nonusers. This finding applied only to women and only to multivitamin products that also included minerals.

Magnesium is one of the minerals which is always included in combination vitamin products. Many studies have shown a beneficial effect of magnesium on cardiovascular and other causes of death in both women and men. And, of course, taking magnesium prevents migraine headaches since magnesium deficiency is found in up to 50% of migraine sufferers.

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Eating more salt leads to more headaches, according to a study published in BMJ Open last December. In a multicentre feeding study with three 30-day periods, 390 participants were randomised to the DASH (a healthy diet that was expected to lower blood pressure) or control (regular, not very healthy) diet. On their assigned diet (DASH and regular), participants ate food with high sodium during one period, intermediate sodium during another period and low sodium during another period, in random order. The occurrence and severity of headache were recorded at the end of each feeding period. The researchers did not attempt to determine which type of headaches people were suffering from, but it is safe to assume that the majority suffered from tension-type and migraine headaches. The average age was 48 and 57% were women.

The occurrence of headaches was similar in DASH versus control, at high, intermediate and low sodium levels. By contrast, there was a lower risk of headache on the low, compared with high sodium level, both on the control and DASH diets. Obviously, there are many reasons to eat a healthy diet, but prevention of headaches is not one of them.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between elevated blood pressure and headaches.

The authors concluded that reduced sodium intake was associated with a significantly lower risk of headache, while dietary patterns had no effect on the risk of headaches in adults. This study showed that reducing dietary sodium intake offers a new approach to preventing headaches.

P.S. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products with reduced saturated and total fat.

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Epilepsy drugs Depakote and Topamax are two of only four drugs approved by the FDA for the prevention of episodic migraines (the other two are blood pressure medications in the beta blocker family, propranolol and timolol, while Botox is the only drug approved for the preventive treatment of chronic migraines). However, these two drugs are contraindicated in pregnancy. Considering that the majority of migraine sufferers are young women, this is a topic that needs to be revisited regularly, especially when additional data appears.

A new study just published in the journal Neurology followed children in the British National Health Service whose mothers suffered from epilepsy and who were taking Depakote (valproate) or Tegretol (Carbamazepine) or Lamictal (lamotrigine). Only Depakote caused a significant drop in IQ in children whose mother was taking more than 800 mg of Depakote a day. Children whose mother took less than 800 mg (the usual dose for migraines is 500 mg, but sometimes 1,000 mg is needed) did not have a lower IQ, but had impaired verbal abilities and a 6-fold increase in needing educational intervention.

Unfortunately, Tegretol and Lamictal are not effective for the prevention of migraine headaches, while Topamax which is effective, can cause birth defects. Neurontin (gabapentin) is a relatively benign medication, which is safe in pregnancy and it is somewhat effective in the prevention of migraines, including chronic migraines.

Ideally, all drugs should be avoided in pregnancy. We usually advise non-drug approaches, including regular sleep, healthy diet, exercise, biofeedback or meditation, and magnesium supplementation. If this is insufficient, we usually recommend Botox if migraines remain frequent (they often improve in pregnancy). Botox is not approved for use in pregnant women, but considering that it acts locally on nerve endings with very little of it getting into the blood stream, it is most likely safer than any drug that is ingested.

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I recommend several supplements to my headache patients. However, the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA and a few days ago another scandal has erupted. The attorney general of New York ordered Walgreens, WalMart, Target and GNC to stop selling their store brand herbal supplements. His investigation revealed that most of the supplements contained no active ingredients. In case of WalMart, only 4% of their herbal products contained an active ingredient. The tests involved Gingko biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Garlic, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, and Valerian root.

Of the herbal supplements for headaches, I recommend Boswellia and Feverfew made by a high quality manufacturer, Nature’s Way. I do not recommend butterbur, even though I participated in a large study that showed its efficacy in preventing migraine headaches. Butterbur contains several toxic chemicals, which can cause liver damage and other serious problems. Petadolex brand of butterbur claims to be free of these toxic ingredients, but the product is not allowed to be sold in Germany where it is manufactured. Here is my previous post on Petadolex.

Non-herbal supplements such as CoQ10 could also present a problem. For years, I have been recommending WalMart’s brand because it was much less expensive than any other brand and because I assumed that such a large company will have strict quality controls. Now I am thinking that it is possible that the price is so low because there is not much CoQ10 in it. CoQ10 by Nature’s Way costs more than twice as much as WalMart’s ($75 vs $30 for a month supply of 300 mg a day), but it may be worth it.

My most recommended supplement for migraines is magnesium and it is much less likely to present a problem because it is very inexpensive. Most of the cost is in manufacturing, bottling, shipping, etc. and not in the active ingredient.

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An email I just received, which is attached at the end of this post, prompted me to write again about magnesium. In my opinion, every migraine sufferer should try taking magnesium. It’s been 20 years since we published our first study of magnesium, in which we showed that during an attack, half of migraine sufferers have a magnesium deficiency. In that study, patients who were deficient had dramatic relief of their acute migraine with an intravenous infusion of magnesium. Subsequent studies by other researchers have shown that oral magnesium supplementation can also help. The results of those studies were not as dramatic because many people do not absorb magnesium taken by mouth. One large double-blind study used a salt of magnesium that was caused diarrhea in almost half of the patients. The magnesium salts that are better absorbed include magnesium glycinate, gluconate, aspartate (these are so called chelated forms), but some people do well with magnesium oxide, citrate, or chloride. The recommended daily dose of magnesium for a healthy adult is 400 mg a day, but some people need a higher dose. However, higher doses can cause diarrhea, while in others, even a high dose does not get absorbed. In these cases, monthly intravenous injections can be very effective. To establish who is deficient, a special blood test can help. The regular blood test is called serum magnesium level, but it is highly unreliable. A better test is RBC magnesium, but even with this test, if the value is normal, but is at the bottom of normal range, a deficiency is likely to be present. In many people there is no need for a test because they have multiple symptoms of magnesium deficiency. These symptoms include coldness of extremities, leg or foot cramps, PMS in women, “brain fog”, difficulty breathing, insomnia, and palpitations.

Here is the email I just received:

Dr. Mauskop,

I am a 76 year old male; serious headaches began at 8 years of age.
Full migraines started at 18 years of age, with aura, intense pain on one side, violent vomiting.
Sought treatment at UCLA, Thomas Jefferson University, London, Singapore. Had brain scans, biofeedback, full allergy testing, beta blockers. Started on Imigran/Imitrex in 1993 in Singapore, worked well, but did not stop pain completely. Still took a day to recover.
Nothing stopped the 2 to 4 episodes per week.
Two months ago, I read about magnesium deficiency. (Not recommended by any doctor before.)
Took 600 mg capsule per day for three days. No migraine.
Had a bit of diarrhea – checked on internet, saw it was the dose of magnesium.
Dropped intake to 340 mg per day.
Miracle: No migraine in two months.
Thank you for your research and service.
I had an annual physical in December, and mentioned to my doctor – an internist – what I had recently read about magnesium. He had not heard about it; checked on the internet while I was there; and said “interesting”. So, the word is certainly not out.


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Many medical and pain conditions, including migraines, are more likely to occur in people who were abused in childhood. A new study by Richard Lipton and his colleagues compared the risk of developing migraines with the risk of developing episodic tension-type headache in people who experienced emotional abuse, emotional neglect, or sexual abuse. Episodic tension-type headaches are relatively mild and are experienced by most people from a variety of triggers, such as stress, sleep deprivation, hunger, and acute medical illness. Migraines, on the other hand, are much more severe and often cause inability to function and interfere with the quality of life.

Incidence of history of abuse was compared in 8,305 migraine sufferers and 1,429 people who had tension-type headaches. Emotional neglect and sexual abuse was more common in those with migraines but with these two types of abuse the development of migraine was linked to the development of anxiety and depression. Only those with emotional abuse had an increased risk of having migraines even without having anxiety and depression. All three forms of maltreatment were also associated with an increase in migraine headache frequency, but only when anxiety and depression was also present. This study also showed that having two or three forms of abuse was more likely to cause migraines than if only one type of abuse was reported.

Previous studies have also shown a correlation between the number of maltreatment types and pain conditions. These pain conditions include fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, and temporo-mandibular joint disorder. Exposure to abuse or a traumatic event is thought to lead to a persistent increased excitability of the nervous system, which in turn makes one more predisposed to various pain conditions.

The importance of Lipton’s study is in reminding doctors who treat pain conditions to ask about maltreatment in childhood and about other traumatic events. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common in abuse victims and it needs to be recognized and addressed when treating migraines and pain. Psychological approaches, such as biofeedback and cognitive-behavioral therapy should always be included in the treatment of chronic pain and headaches, but it is particularly necessary in people with a history of abuse or emotional trauma.


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A study by Australian doctors led by Dr. Lyn Griffiths confirmed a previous observation that higher dietary intake of
folic acid leads to lower frequency of migraine headaches. A 2009 study by Spanish doctors showed that patients with migraine with aura are more likely to have high homocysteine levels in their blood, a condition that can be corrected by taking folic acid and other B vitamins.

The authors of this new study have shown before that folic acid, vitamin B6, and B12 supplementation reduces migraine symptoms in patients with a certain genetic mutation (MTHFR gene), which leads to high homocysteine levels. However, the influence of dietary folate intake on migraine has been unclear. The aim of their current study was to analyze the association of dietary folate intake with migraine frequency, severity, and disability.

They studied 141 adult caucasian women with migraine with aura who had the MTHFR gene C677T variant. Dietary folate information was collected from all participants. Folate consumption was compared with migraine frequency, severity, and disability.

A significant correlation was observed between dietary folate consumption and migraine frequency. The conclusion of this study was that folate intake may influence migraine frequency in female sufferers with migraine with aura.

Good dietary sources of folic acid include spinach, lettuce, avocado, and other vegetables. If you suffer from migraine with aura you may want to ask your doctor to check your homocysteine level, as well as levels of folic acid and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 level is not a reliable test because it can be normal even when a person is deficient and that is why it is important to check homocysteine level as well.

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Vitamin D deficiency has received wide attention and many doctors now check for this deficiency during routine check-ups. I’ve posted about the importance of vitamin D in migraine headaches and for general health. Vitamin D deficiency seems to increase the risk of cancer, other serious diseases and death.

However, just like with vitamin B12 and magnesium, the regular blood test for vitamin D can be misleading. It appears that while blacks have lower levels of vitamin D than whites, they have healthier bones. A study by R. Thadhani of Massachusetts General Hospital explained this paradox. It appears that some of vitamin D circulates in the blood in a free form, while the rest is bound to protein. Only the free form is active, but the blood test measures only the total amount of vitamin D. Blacks appear to have much less of the protein-bound vitamin D, so the amount of the active form can be higher in blacks even if the overall amount of vitamin D is lower. These researchers are developing a more sensitive test for vitamin D levels.

To be on the safe side, most people should aim to have their vitamin D level at least in the middle of normal range. The normal range is 30 to 100 and some studies (for example, in multiple sclerosis) suggest that the higher the level (within the normal range), the better. So, I would recommend getting your level up into the 40s and 50s. Many multivitamins, calcium with vitamin D products, and plain vitamin D supplements have only 200 or 400 units of vitamin D (it is usually listed as vitamin D3). I have seen many patients who need to take 2,000 or even 5,000 units daily to have a good level in the blood. In severe deficiency that does not respond to even these amounts, I prescribe 50,000 units of vitamin D weekly, which is available only by prescription. Unfortunately, unlike with magnesium or vitamin B12, vitamin D is not available in an injection.

The bottom line is that if you are taking a supplement, it does not necessarily mean you have enough of vitamin D in your blood and you should have the test repeated.

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While being overweight doese not cause migraines, in those who do suffer with migraines there is an inverse relationship between person’s weight and the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Weight loss, including that due to weight loss (bariatric) surgery, has been reported to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches and migraine-related disability. Obesity is also associated with headaches due to increased intracranial pressure (also called pseudotumor cerebri) and losing weight improves such headaches as well.

However, while bariatric surgery may improve migraines, in a small number of people it can cause a different type of headaches. This rare type of headache is caused by a spontaneous leak of cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF), the fluid which surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. Such leaks are common after a spinal tap or can be a complication of epidural anesthesia. Loss of CSF can cause severe headaches, which are strictly positional. They are severe in the upright position, sitting or standing, but quickly improve upon lying down.

A study of 338 patients who underwent bariatric surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles detected 11 patients who developed a spontaneous CSF leak with severe headaches. Headaches started anywhere within three months and 20 years after surgery. Clearly, headaches starting 20 years later are not likely to be related to surgery, which suggests that this link between bariatric surgery and headaches is far from proven. Of these 11 patients, 9 improved with treatment. The typical treatment for a CSF leak is a “blood patch” procedure, which involves taking blood from the patient’s vein and injecting it into the area of the leak. When blood clots, it usually seals the leak and the headache improves within hours.

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Vertigo and dizziness are more common in migraine sufferers than in people without migraines. A patient I am treating for migraines emailed me a few days ago complaining of vertigo. Dizziness is a term which can mean unsteadiness, lightheadedness, or vertigo. Vertigo is a sensation of spinning, which is most often caused by a disturbance of the inner ear. One type of vertigo is called benign positional vertigo (BPV). BPV usually causes very severe vertigo. One patients told me that while lying on the floor he felt as if he was falling off the floor. BPV is caused by a loose crystal in the inner ear. As the name implies, this type of vertigo occurs only when turning to one side, but not the other. If turning in bed to the right causes vertigo, then the problem is in the right inner ear. A simple (Epley) maneuver can quickly cure this problem by stopping this loose crystal from rolling around and causing havoc. I emailed my patient a link to a YouTube video showing how to do the Epley maneuver and half an hour later she emailed back saying that the vertigo was gone. Sometimes this maneuver needs to be repeated a few times before vertigo completely disappears. Here is the link to the Epley maneuver

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A report by Taiwanese doctors just published in the journal Neurology suggests that having migraine headaches may double the risk of Bell’s palsy.

Several medical conditions, such as asthma, anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy, and other occur with higher frequency in migraineurs, but until now, no one suspected an association between migraines and Bell’s palsy.

The researchers compared two groups of 136,704 people aged 18 years and older – one group with migraine and the other without. They followed these two groups for an average of 3 years.

During that time, 671 people in the migraine group and 365 of the non-migraine group developed Bell’s palsy.

This association persisted even after other factors such as sex, high blood pressure, and diabetes were taken into account.

The authors speculated that the inflammation and the blood vessel problems seen in both conditions may explain this association.

This study appears to be of purely academic interest since we do not know how to prevent Bell’s palsy. However, I decided to write about it because a couple of my colleagues (one in our office and at least one other on a doctors’ discussion board) reported seeing Bell’s palsy soon after administering Botox injections for chronic migraines. This report by Taiwanese doctors suggests that Bell’s palsy might have been not due to Botox, but rather a coincidence since Bell’s palsy is more common in migraine sufferers.

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Trigeminal neuralgia is a very painful and debilitating condition (Here is a review article I wrote for physicians). Fortunately, it is relatively infrequent – affecting 0.3% of the population, compared to 12% afflicted by migraines. This explains relative paucity of studies of this condition. A group of neurologists at the Danish Headache Center studied 158 consecutive patients with trigeminal neuralgia (TN) seen at their center over a period of one year. They published their findings in the journal Headache.

Average age of onset of pain was 53 years. TN was more common in women than men (60% vs 40%) and more common on the right side (56%). When only one of the three branches of the trigeminal nerve were affected, the first and the second were involved in 69% of cases and the third branch (lower third of the face) alone was involved in only 7% of sufferers.

The pain of trigeminal neuralgia is described the same way by almost all sufferers – it feels like a strong electric shock. It can be triggered by chewing, brushing teeth, speaking, air movement from wind or air conditioner, and at times it occurs without any provoking factor. In this study, half of the patients reported having a more persistent but milder pain in addition to the typical stabbing, electric-like pain. One fifth of patients reported to have some tearing on the side of pain and in 17% there was some loss of sensation over the area of pain.

Treatment of TN usually begins with epilepsy drugs,such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) or oxcarbazepine (Trileptal). Although 89% of patient in this study reported some improvement, only 56% of them were taking these medications because in others they caused unacceptable side effects. Other drugs that can be helpful for TN include baclofen (a muscle relaxant) and Botox injections. I’ve treated a handful of patients with TN with Botox
and about half of them responded. Botox is injected into the area of pain, which tends to be small and only a very small amount of Botox needs to be injected. Injections of Botox are safer than any oral medication, but depending on the area injected, they can cause cosmetic side effects – asymmetric appearance of the face. Botox is approved by the FDA for chronic migraines but not TN, which means that insurance companies are not likely to pay for it. However, only about one tenth of the amount of Botox used for migraine is needed to treat TN, the cost is much lower.

The authors plan to provide additional information about this group of patients in future publications.

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Cost is the only major issue with Botox injections, which is the only FDA-approved treatment for chronic migraines and which is now covered by almost all insurance companies. It is very safe and highly effective, relieving headaches in 70% of migraine sufferers. A study just published in the journal Headache suggests that Botox may be not only clinically effective, but also cost-effective.

Researchers from the Renown Neurosciences Institute in Reno, Nevada analyzed data from 230 chronic migraine sufferers who did not respond to two or more prophylactic drugs and were given Botox injections. Botox was given twice, three months apart. Compared with the 6 months before Botox, there were 55% fewer emergency room visits, 59% fewer urgent care visits, and 57% fewer admissions to the hospital. In those 6 months the savings amounted to half of the cost of Botox treatments. Considering that improvement tends to get more pronounced with each subsequent Botox treatment, it is very likely that the costs savings would grow with additional treatments.

Obviously, besides saving money, Botox provides a significant improvement in the quality of people’s lives, which is much harder to measure. At our Center we give Botox to more than a quarter of our patients and see a dramatic improvement in the majority. Botox is not only much more effective for chronic migraines, but it is also much safer than any oral medication.

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Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is usually seen in children. The attacks of vomiting often stop as the child gets older, but then they usually go on to develop migraine headaches. A recent report in Headache describes three adults with CVS. The article also mentions a previous report which described another 17 adults with this syndrome.

CVS typically consists of recurrent stereotypical attacks of incapacitating nausea and vomiting, separated by symptom-free periods. Supporting evidence that helps diagnose this condition include personal or family history of migraine and other symptoms, such as headaches, motion sickness, and sensitivity to light.

Just like in children, CVS in adults is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that other causes of vomiting must be considered and ruled out. I mentioned in a previous post that one out of three children with CVS turned out to have another medical problem rather than migraine.

CVS in adults seems to respond well to an injection of sumatriptan (Imitrex). This allows for a quick relief of symptoms and makes this debilitating condition very manageable. Besides Imitrex injections, Zomig (zolmitriptan) nasal spray can sometimes be effective as well.

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Placebo effect is a well-documented phenomenon, which is particularly pronounced when treating migraine headaches. Intravenous (IV) infusion of saline water is a placebo commonly used in studies where placebo is compared to a medication also given IV.

It is baffling why a group of Canadian physicians decided to test the effect of (IV) fluids on migraines in children and adolescents seen in an emergency room (the study was just published in Headache). They compared a group of children who were told that they will get only IV fluids with another group who was told that they might also get a medication with the IV fluids. The second group actually watched a nurse add something to the bag of IV fluid, but the children were not told that it was just more of the saline water. The researchers thought that the expectation of getting a medicine will help relieve their migraine headache. In fact neither group, the one who received IV fluids without expecting any medicine and the group who thought that they may be getting medicine had much relief. Strangely, the doctors concluded that additional studies using larger volumes of IV fluids are warranted. As if there is a chance that giving more fluids will stop a severe migraine. Sadly, intravenous fluids are often used in emergency rooms as a treatment for migraines in adults and children and we did not need this study to show that it is an ineffective approach. Doing more such studies seems unethical. Imagine a parent getting up in the middle of the night, taking a sick child to an emergency room where the child receives only intravenous fluids and is sent home with the child still in pain.

Emergency rooms, even in the medical mecca of New York City, are notorious for using ineffective treatments for migraine headaches. If not intravenous fluids, patients often get narcotic (opioid) pain killers, tranquilizers, or antihistamines, such as Benadryl. Some patients are just given a tablet of ibuprofen and are sent home after waiting for hours to be seen and treated. Here is a previous post on what to ask for if you end up in an emergency room with a severe migraine. Obviously, some doctors will not comply with your request, but it is worth asking.

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Considering that meditation can literally change your brain, it is not at all surprising that it can also prevent migraine headaches. A study by doctors at Wake Forest School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School published in the journal Headache confirmed that meditation can prevent migraine headaches.

I’ve written before about studies showing that meditation reduces negative perception of pain and that even three daily 20-minute meditation sessions reduce pain.

Stress is one of the most common triggers for migraine headaches. Many studies of various mind/body interventions have been shown to be helpful for migraine. The researchers in the latest study used a standardized 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program that teaches mindfulness meditation and yoga. This approach has been shown to be effective for chronic pain syndromes, but this was the first time it was tested for migraines.

The study included 9 adults who received their usual care and 10 who were enrolled in the meditation program. The program consisted of 8 weekly 2-hour sessions, plus one mindfulness retreat day (6 hours) led by a trained instructor.

All 10 patients completed the program. The program participants had on average 1.4 fewer migraines per month. The reduction ranged from 3.5 to 1.0 migraines, while in the control group the improvement ranged from 1.2 to 0 migraines per month. Headaches were less severe and shorter in those who meditated compared to those who did not. Disability also improved (measured by Migraine Disability Assessment and Headache Impact Test-6) in the active group, compared to controls.

The authors concluded that mindfulness-based stress reduction is safe and feasible for adults with migraines. Although the study included a small number of patients this intervention had a beneficial effect on headache duration, disability, self-efficacy, and mindfulness. The authors feel that there is a clear need for studies with larger numbers of patients. I, on the other hand, feel that every patient with migraines should try meditation even before larger studies are completed. If meditation can increase the thickness of your brain and prevent age-related brain atrophy, it is very likely to have many other health benefits, including prevention of migraine headaches.

How do you start meditating? Meditation classes are widely available and you can start by reading a book or taking an on-line course. I can recommend a book by BH Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English and a website,, but there are many other good resources available.

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Germany was just voted world’s favorite country, according to a report in the USA Today. It also may be the most advanced country in the area of medical rehabilitation. I just came back from Germany where I was invited to give lectures at two prominent clinics. Doctors from both institutions had visited our New York Headache Center to learn about our approach to the treatment of migraines and to learn Botox injection techniques.

My first stop was at the Berolina Klinik, a 280-bed rehabilitation hospital located 80 miles west of Hanover. This hospital provides rehabilitation for a variety of conditions, including orthopedic problems, depression, and chronic headaches. Patients are admitted for a period of 4 to 5 weeks. Treatments available at this institution include physical therapy, biofeedback, individual and group psychotherapy, art therapy, and other. All patient rooms are private. There is a 25-meter (82 feet) swimming pool, gym, inviting dining rooms (with excellent food – I sampled it), green lawns with reclining chairs, and all of it immaculately clean and well-maintained. Staying in such a facility for 4 to 5 weeks is a luxury not available to most Americans. The hospital welcomes patients from abroad and the cost is surprisingly low – about $9,000 for a month of stay, which is less than a third of the cost in the US. They will even pick you up at the Frankfurt airport (third busiest in Europe), which is only 3 hours’ drive. Most of the German patients treated at the Berolina Klinik are covered by insurance, mostly by the German pension fund. The pension fund annually evaluates every facility using strict outcome measures, including the percentage of patients employed two years after being treated at a rehabilitation facility. Berolina Klinik consistently rates among the top German rehabilitation clinics. Dr. Zoltan Medgyessy is the main headache specialist at the clinic and is considered to be one of the leading headache experts in Germany.

The second stop was in Kiel at one of the best German headache and pain clinics, Schmerzklinik Kiel, which is directed by Dr. Hartmut Göbel. This clinic is also an in-patient facility (unlike in the US, where the word clinic implies an office setting). Approximately 70% of patients treated at the Schmerzklinik suffer from headaches and 30% from chronic pain. The clinic is housed in a beautiful building located on the Kiel fjord. Dr. Göbel is one of the top headache researchers and he and I have collaborated on the study of butterbur for the treatment of migraines, which was published in 2004. On this trip I had the honor of speaking in Dr. Göbel’s Master Class – an annual training course for German headache specialists. While I would refer patients who need longer-term rehabilitation (or detox from opioid and other headache drugs) to the Berolina Klinik, Schmerzklinik is where I refer European patients with complicated headache problems and those needing shorter hospital stays.

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A new report by Drs. Gfrerer, Maman and their colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston entitled Non-Endoscopic Deactivation of Nerve Triggers in Migraine Headache Patients: Surgical Technique and Outcomes was recently published in the journal Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery. Surgery for refractory migraine headaches was developed by Dr. Bahman Guyuron and others and was reported to benefit between 68 and 95% patients. This surgery involves cutting or freeing up nerves in the scalp that appear to be responsible for triggering migraines. Some surgeons use a laparascopic technique, which involves making only a few small incisions while others do this surgery through conventional incisions. The authors of this new study argue that endoscopic techniques may not be appropriate in many cases since some surgeons have little experience or limited access to the endoscope and in some patients this technique is not practical because the nerves could run in an unusual pattern, which would make them hard to find through a small incision.

This study involved 43 consecutive procedures in 35 patients. All patients completed questionnaires before and 12 months after surgery. The overall positive response rate was 91%. Total elimination of migraine headaches was reported in 51%, greater than 80% resolution of symptoms in 21%, and 28% had resolution between 50-80%. No improvement was reported after 9% of procedures. There were no major adverse events.

The authors concluded that non-endoscopic surgery was safe and effective treatment in select migraine headache patients.

Most headache experts agree that until proven effective in large controlled studies, surgery should be done only as a part of such a large controlled trial. Just like with previous studies of surgery for migraines, this was a small and not a rigorously controlled trial. Placebo response to surgical procedures is usually very high, however it is rarely 90% and the effect rarely lasts 12 months, as it did in this study. Considering these facts, as well as that this study was done at a reputable institution and that this group consisted of refractory patients (those who did not respond to conventional therapy, including Botox), surgery may in fact offer some real benefits to a small group of patients. We need larger and better controlled trials to figure out if that is indeed the case and what type of patients are the best candidates for surgery.

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Fish oil, or rather omega-3 fatty acids, seem to reduce the risk of Lou Gehrig disease or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). An article in JAMA Neurology by Dr. Fitzgerald and her colleagues analyzed 1,002,082 participants in 5 different large-scale studies. A total of 995 ALS cases were documented. A greater omega-3 intake was associated with a reduced risk for ALS. Consumption of both linolenic acid and marine (fish oil-derived) omega-3s contributed to this inverse association. The researchers concluded that consumption of foods high in omega-3s may help prevent or delay the onset of ALS.

Omega-3s may also relieve migraine headaches, help cope better with stress, prevent damage to nerve endings by chemotherapy, prevent mental decline, and provide other benefits.

I usually recommend (and take it myself) Omax3 brand, which is very pure and concentrated.

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Cluster headaches usually occur once or twice a year for a period lasting from a few weeks to a few months. During those periods, they occur daily or more than once a day. Interestingly, these episodes of cluster headaches tend to occur at the same time of year in many patients, but not always at the same time of year. Looking at our data, we have found that in some years many cluster patients developed their attacks in August, another year, in November, and this year, it has been September – October. This year, we are also seeing many patients whose cluster headaches are not responding to usual treatments.

It does not appear that barometric pressure or allergies are responsible for triggering cluster headaches. One unsubstantiated theory is that the solar activity is responsible for bringing on cluster headaches. This report in the Wall Street Journal indicates that we are currently going through a period of an unusually intense solar activity. Perhaps this is why some of our cluster patients are having unusually severe headaches.

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The first time I heard of the potential benefit of stem cells for migraine headaches was last year from one of my patients. This 55-year-old woman had been having some improvement from intravenous magnesium and nerve blocks, while Botox was ineffective. However, she reported a dramatic improvement in her headaches after receiving an intravenous infusion of stem cells in Panama. The stem cells were obtained from a donated umbilical cord.

Stem cell research has been controversial because most of the early research used stem cells obtained from an aborted fetus. Since then, stem cells have been obtained from the bone marrow, umbilical cord, placenta, and artificial fertilization. Another rich source of stem cells is body’s fat tissue. Most of the stem cell procedures are not yet approved in the US. The main concern is that when you obtain stem cells from another person’s umbilical cord or placenta, there is a risk of transmitting an infection. There are relatively few stem cells in the bone marrow, placenta or the umbilical cord, which means that after isolating them, they need to be grown in a petri dish. This process involves adding various chemicals, which may not be safe, according to the FDA.

A group of doctors in Australia recently reported relief of migraines using stem cells from patients’ own fat. These doctors did not grow these cells, but infused them intravenously right after separating them from fat. The infused cells were not only stem cells, but so called stromal vascular fraction, which also includes cells that surround blood vessels. These four patients were given stem cell treatment for osteoarthritis and not migraines, but they noticed that their migraines and tension-type headaches improved.

Four women with long histories of chronic migraine or chronic tension-type headaches were given an infusion of cells isolated from fat, which was obtained by liposuction. Two of the four patients, aged 40 and 36 years, stopped having migraines after 1 month, for a period of 12 to 18 months. The third patient, aged 43 years, had a significant decrease in the frequency and severity of migraines with only seven migraines over 18 months. The fourth patient, aged 44 years, obtained a temporary decrease for a period of a month and was retreated 18 months later and was still free of migraines at the time the report was submitted one month later.

This case series is the first published evidence of the possible efficacy of stromal vascular fraction in the treatment of migraine and tension-type headaches.

It is not very surprising that stem cells can improve migraine headaches because stem cells are tested as a treatment for a variety of inflammatory diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and colitis. Inflammation is proven to be present during a migraine attack and this inflammation may attract stem cells. Many experts believe that stem cells may work for MS or other neurological disorders not by becoming brain cells, but by stimulating body’s own repair mechanisms.

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Beta blockers (Inderal or propranolol and similar drugs) are used for the preventive treatment of migraine headaches. Over the years, a few patients have told me that they take a beta blocker only when they have an attack of migraine with very good results. A report published in Missouri Medicine describes seven patients whose acute migraine headache went away with eye drops containing a beta blocker. These eye drops are used for the treatment of glaucoma. The authors argue that having medicine go into the eye allows it to get absorbed quickly into the blood stream. This is certainly true, but my first thought was that there is too little medicine in eye drops to produce an effect outside the eye. However, beta blocker eye drops can worsen asthma, lower the blood pressure and slow the heart rate, suggesting that the amount of medicine in eye drops is sufficient to cause effects beyond the eye. Oral beta blockers used daily for the preventive treatment of migraines are also contraindicated in those medical conditions. Considering that eye drops are probably safer than many oral medications used to treat an acute migraine attack and that they most likely work faster, this treatment is worth trying.

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Parkinson’s disease (PD), parkinsonian symptoms, and restless leg syndrome (RLS) are more common in people who in middle age suffered from migraines with aura. Those suffering from migraine without aura in their midlife had increased risk of having symptoms of Parkinson’s and RLS, but not PD. These are the findings of a large study of residents of Reykjavik, Iceland who were born between 1907 and 1935. These residents had been followed since 1967. Headaches were classified based on symptoms assessed in middle age. From 2002 to 2006, 5,764 participants were reexamined to assess symptoms of parkinsonism, diagnosis of PD, family history of PD, and RLS.

People who suffered from migraines, particularly migraine with aura, were in later life more likely than others to report parkinsonian symptoms and diagnosed to have PD. Women with migraine with aura were more likely than others to have a parent or sibling with PD. Late-life RLS was increased in those with headaches generally.

The authors concluded that there may be a common vulnerability to, or consequences of, migraine and multiple indicators of parkinsonism.

There are no proven ways to prevent PD, but eating more fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and omega-3 rich oils (or taking an omega-3 supplement, such as Omax3) and avoiding red meat and dairy may have some protective effect against PD.

Intensive research into the causes and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, supported by Michael J. Fox and Sergey Brin of Google among others, should lead to true breakthroughs in the next few years.

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Stabbing headaches can be a sign of acute multiple sclerosis, according to a report by German doctors in the journal Headache. Stabbing headache is a rare type of headache, although patients with migraines often report having occasional “ice pick” headaches. Some call these headaches “jabs and jolts”. In some people, stabbing headaches can be quite disabling. The pain lasts only a couple of seconds but can occur up to 100 times a day. Treatment usually involves indomethacin or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication in the aspirin family (including our own Migralex). However, in this case where stabbing headaches were associated with MS, treating MS relieved headaches as well.

In a prior report in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery Italian physicians also found that of 26 patients with stabbing headaches they had seen over 10 years, more than half had autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis, Sjögren’s disease, lupus, Behçet’s disease, autoimmune vasculitis, and antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. The authors speculated that stabbing headache may develop as a result of inflammation in the brain with loss of myelin around the nerve fibers, which is seen with MS and other auto-immune disorders.

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Peripheral nerve blocks can be very effective in stopping a severe migraine attack. We utilize them when a patient does not respond to oral or injected medications or when medications are contraindicated because of a coexisting disease or pregnancy.

Dr. Jessica Ailani and her colleagues at the Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. presented their experience with nerve blocks at the last annual meeting of the American Headache Society in Los Angeles. The study included 164 patients. Most patients received occipital and trigeminal nerve blocks using lidocaine or a similar local anesthetic.

Most patients were satisfied with the results, which lasted from several days up to 2 weeks. Only a small number of participants experienced side effects such as soreness at the site of injections, nausea and vomiting, and head and neck pain.

Dr. Ailani noted that more than 71% of patients rated their pain as 4 to 8 out of 10 before treatment with a nerve block. After a nerve block, nearly half (47.2%) said the pain had reduced to 1 out of 10.

“This is a very well-tolerated procedure and patients are very satisfied with the procedure,” said Dr. Ailani.

Nerve blocks can help keeps headache sufferers out of the emergency room and provide an alternative to systemic drugs, that is drugs that are injected or ingested. Systemic drugs affect the entire body while nerve blocks exert only local effects (unless one is allergic to local anesthetics).

Dr. Robert Kaniecki, a headache specialist in Pittsburgh uses nerve blocks for the prevention of chronic migraine headaches. He administers them into the same areas where Botox is injected. He finds that for some of his patients nerve blocks given every 12 weeks can be as effective as Botox. It is possible that such patients have milder migraines since the effect of nerve blocks lasts a very short time (lidocaine leaves the body after 4 hours or so) compared with the effect of Botox which lasts 3 months. Unlike Botox injections, nerve blocks have not been subjected to a rigorous scientific study comparing them to placebo (saline) injections.

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Frequent attacks of migraine are best treated with preventive measures. Several categories of medications have been shown to be effective for the prevention of migraine headaches. These include Botox injections (for chronic migraine), epilepsy drugs (gabapentin, topiramate, divalproex), blood pressure medications (propranolol, atenolol, lisinopril, losartan, and other), as well antidepressants.

Antidepressants, like most other preventive drugs, were discovered to be effective for pain and headaches by accident. We have good scientific proof that you do not need to be depressed to obtain pain and headache relief from these drugs. The effect on pain and on anxiety or depression are independent of each other. However, many patients who have pain and headaches have higher rates of depression and anxiety and these drugs can relieve both conditions.

The oldest category of antidepressants are tricyclic antidepressants. Elavil or amitriptyline was introduced in the US in 1961. Amitriptyline has been extensively tested for a variety of painful conditions, including low back pain, neuropathy pain, migraines, and other. The main side effects of amitriptyline are dry mouth, drowsiness, constipation, and sometimes, weight gain. Other drugs in the family of tricyclic antidepressants often have fewer side effects. Many doctors always begin with nortriptyline or Pamelor, which is a derivative of amitriptyline and may have fewer side effects. Amitriptyline is broken down in the body into nortriptyline, which is less sedating. We also prescribe other tricyclics, desipramine (Norpramine), doxepin (Sinequan), and protriptyline (Vivactil), which also tend to have fewer side effects. When a patient has insomnia and is not prone to gaining wait, amitriptyline may be the better choice since it will also improve sleep.

The starting dose of amitriptyline, nortriptyline, doxepin, and desipramine is 10 or 25 mg taken at night. Then, if this starting dose is ineffective, the dose is gradually increased to 50 mg, then 75, and sometimes higher. Besides being very effective, tricyclics have another advantage – there is a blood test to measure how much of the medicine is absorbed and is circulating in the body. When a patient takes more than 75 – 100 mg without obtaining relief, we do a blood test to see if the blood level is low and we need to increase the dose or if the level is high and the drug is just ineffective. With protriptyline, the least sedating drug, the starting dose is 10 mg and the highest dose is around 30 mg. Treatment of pain and migraines usually requires a much lower dose of a tricyclic than for depression. All of the tricyclics are available in a generic form and are inexpensive.

Another category of antidepressants that relieve pain and headaches is serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs. Some of the SNRIs are FDA-approved for various painful conditions, such as neuropathy, shingles, fibromyalgia, and back pains. Most popular SNRIs are Effexor (venlafaxine), which is available in a generic form, Cymbalta (duloxetine), Pristiq (desvenlafaxine), Savella (milnacipran), and Fetzima (levomilnacipran). These drugs have fewer side effects than tricyclics, although they are sometimes difficult to stop because they can cause heightened anxiety and other withdrawal symptoms.

Nardil (phenelzine) is an antidepressant in the family of MAO inhibitors and it has also been used for the preventive treatment of migraine headaches. However, this drug has many potential serious drug-drug and drug–food interactions and most doctors avoid this medicine. Other MAOI drugs are Parnate (tranylcypromine), Emsam patch (selegiline) and other.

SSRIs are the most popular drugs for the treatment of anxiety and depression, but they are ineffective for the treatment of pain, migraines, and other headaches. These drugs include Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), Lexapro (escitalopram), Zoloft (sertraline) and other. They are very popular because they have fewer side effects than other antidepressants, although they probably cause higher rates of sexual dysfunction.

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Severe persistent migraines can affect emotional, interpersonal, social, and work-related functioning. It is difficult to learn how to cope with pain and improve your functioning on your own. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to improve lives of people with pain, including migraine headaches and not only in adults, but also in children. One major problem with CBT is that it is not readily available in many areas and when available, it is expensive.

I’ve written about two online programs for CBT, which offer help to patients with anxiety and depression. Another online service offers free resources that have been shown to improve coping with pain, to decrease anxiety and depression, and to provide other benefits. The site offers help to patients with migraine, as well as cancer pain, back and arthritis pain, and neuropathic pain. The migraine section has five modules: communication skills, emotional coping, self-management skills, knowledge base, and medication safety.

I do have a problem with their medication safety section in that it does not mention caffeine and caffeine-containing drugs when describing rebound, or medication overuse headaches. These drugs include Excedrin, Anacin, Fiorinal, Fioricet, Esgic, and other. At the same time, they list aspirin, which actually may prevent medication overuse headaches and triptans, which rarely cause such headaches (one of my most popular posts is devoted to daily intake of triptans, which is not something I encourage, but which is the only solution for some patients).

But overall, this is a very useful resource for headache sufferers. To take full advantage of this site you need to go through multiple modules, preferably on a regular basis, say twice a week. It is also useful to keep going back to the old material since it is not easy to change faulty thought processes. The site has enough material to keep you engaged for many sessions. And if you do visit the site regularly you will find that your headaches may become more manageable and that they may have less of an impact on your life.

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Expiration date on medications does not indicate that the medication is no longer effective or safe after that date. Having had extensive experience with the production and testing of Migralex, I can reassure you that medications remain safe and effective for years after the expiration date. An article just published in the Wall Street Journal’s “Burning Question” column addresses this issue.

The FDA has conducted a study for the Department of Defense testing 122 different drugs. The conclusion of the study was that 88% of the drugs remain effective for an average of 5 and 1/2 years after the expiration date. The main problem with expired drugs is not that they become dangerous to use, but that their efficacy slowly declines. A doctor quoted in the WSJ article says that there have been no reported cases of toxicity from expired medications. But a decline in efficacy could be a problem with life-saving drugs, such as nitroglycerin for heart, EpiPen for allergies, or insulin for diabetes.

It is very important to store the medications in a dry cool place, rather than in a medicine cabinet in the bathroom, which periodically gets hot and humid. Also, do not leave drugs in a car during the summer – the temperature in a locked car left in the sun can rise to 130 degrees and higher.

I usually advise not to use drugs beyond two years of the expiration date even if they were kept in a dry and cool place. Before using an expired drug inspect the tablet to make sure it hasn’t turned colors, smells bad, or became brittle and crumbling. Obviously, if it is an inexpensive generic drug, get a fresh bottle. However, with expensive drugs, such as some triptans (Relpax, Frova, Axert) and injections of Imitrex (sumatriptan) considerable amounts of money can be safely saved. A common scenario is a patient with cluster headaches who has a bout every couple of years and has only expired injections of Imitrex. It usually takes at least a few days to be seen by a doctor and to get a new prescription, while the attacks of cluster headaches can be devastatingly severe. Again, the worst that can happen is that the injection will be less effective, but usually it will still provide some relief.

There is a difference in how long expired drugs remain effective depending on the formulation. For example, tablets are the most stable, while creams and liquid drugs, such as drops, are least likely to last past the expiration date.

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A report from the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve describes 22 patients with new daily persistent headaches (NDPH) who were treated with Botox injections.

NDPH is a condition in which the headache begins suddenly without an obvious trigger and persists continuously without a break. Because NDPH is relatively uncommon, there have been no large studies of this condition. Patients with NDPH usually do not exhibit symptoms of migraine, such as throbbing pain, nausea, sensitivity to light, noise or physical activity. Because of its sudden onset, we suspect that these headaches may be the result of a viral or another type of infection. There are no treatments that consistently relieve these headaches, but we usually try all of the drugs and approaches we use in migraines.

A group of doctors from Cleveland, Ohio discovered that while Botox seems to help, only 32% of patients with NDPH showed improvement, confirming the refractory nature of this type of headaches. Twenty one of the 22 patients underwent more than one treatment with Botox and most were given a standard migraine treatment protocol with 155 units injected into 31 sites. The improvement was modest but it did result in headache-free days, which were not observed prior to this treatment. The disability improved slightly and when the improvement did occur, it lasted about 8 weeks. Some of our chronic migraine patients also require Botox injections every 8 to 10 weeks, instead of the usual 12. Considering that we do not have any better treatments, Botox should be offered to patients with NDPH.

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A new combination of two old drugs seems to provide relief for some trigeminal neuralgia (TN) sufferers. The first line drugs for TN are epilepsy drugs, carbamazepine (Tegretol) or oxcarbazepine (Trileptal). A presentation at the last annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society by Saudi physicians described successful use of another epilepsy/pain drug, pregabaline (Lyrica) with an antidepressant/pain drug duloxetine (Cymbalta). Both Lyrica and Cymbalta are approved by the FDA for the treatment of some pain conditions, although not TN. The doctors compared Lyrica alone with Lyrica and Cymbalta in combination in 200 patients. The combination resulted in an 80% reduction of pain, which was observed within 10 days, while Lyrica alone produced a 60% reduction that started within 20 days. The dose of Lyrica was 150 mg twice a day (after a one week build up from 75 mg twice a day) and the dose of Cymbalta was 60 mg a day.

Since both Cymbalta and Lyrica have pain relieving properties, this appears to be a rational combination of medications to use in TN and possibly other painful conditions, including various types of headaches. However, as a general rule, we try to use a single drug whenever possible to reduce the potential for side effects. TN is such a severe and debilitating condition, that it may be justified to use a combination early, especially if the first line drugs, such as oxcarbazepine fail.

In my previous posts I have described the use of intravenous medications, Botox and other invasive treatments for TN.

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