Acetaminophen is what most obstetricians recommend pregnant women take for their headaches. However, it is not very effective for migraine headaches and it is not as safe as we thought (see my recent post). Fioricet is another drug favored by some obstetrician and it is also not very effective and not very safe.

Sumatriptan (Imitrex) was introduced 20 years ago and the manufacturer has maintained a registry of women who took the drug while pregnant. The final results of this registry were just published in the journal Headache. The registry included 626 women who were exposed to sumatriptan during their pregnancies. They also followed women who took two other migraine drugs, naratriptan (Amerge) and a combination of sumatriptan with naproxen (Treximet). However, there were too few women in those groups to make any conclusions about the drugs’ safety.

As far as sumatriptan, the risk of major birth defects was not increased. The authors also reviewed several other large studies which assessed the risk of taking migraine medications during pregnancy. One of the studies were from the Swedish Medical Birth Register, which included 2257 births following first trimester sumatriptan exposure. No risk was found in this study either.

In summary, pregnant women suffering from severe migraines should be prescribed sumatriptan. Most women respond to an oral form (tablet), but those with very severe attacks should be offered an injection.

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Skipping meals, for some people, is a sure way to get a migraine headache. Even those who do not suffer from migraines can get a headache from not eating breakfast and lunch. However, fasting has remained popular for the treatment of various conditions. Migraine sufferers who suspect that some foods may be triggering their headaches are sometime advised to try an elimination diet. This diet often begins with a fast and then one type of food is introduced at a time to see if it triggers a negative reaction. Anecdotal reports describe relief of migraine headaches with fasting for periods of up to five days. Some programs recommend five-day fasts twice a year, while others are advocating five days each month. A 5:2 diet involves eating a normal amount of calories for five days and the following two days eating 1/4 of that amount. The problem is that some people will have worsening of their headaches in the first day or two. However, most patient reports that after having headaches for a day or two the head becomes very clear.

It is not clear if fasting helps various medical conditions, if indeed it does, which remains an open question. One potential mechanism may involve stem cells. Recent studies suggest that fasting causes proliferation of stem cells. The study was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. The research was done in mice and showed that prolonged fasting protects against immune system damage and induce immune system regeneration. The researchers speculated that fasting induces stem cells from a dormant state to a state of proliferation.

One of the authors of the study said that “We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration of the hematopoietic system. When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged. What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. ”

Fasting and induction of stem cells seems to reduce an enzyme which has been linked to aging, tumor progression and cancer. Fasting also protected against toxicity in a small human trial where patients fasted for 72 hours prior to chemotherapy.

“Chemotherapy causes significant collateral damage to the immune system. The results of this study suggest that fasting may mitigate some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy.”

So, how long do you need to fast to induce your stem cells and to get beneficial results? Some advocate suggest one or two days a week. Others promote twice yearly five-day fasts. The bottom line, we have no research on this topic.

Fasting may help protect against brain disease. Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have found evidence that fasting for one or two days a week can prevent the effects of Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease. Research also found that cutting the daily intake to 500 calories a day for two days out of the seven can show clear beneficial effects for the brain. It is possible that fasting helps by inducing proliferation of stem cells in the brain.

Fasting cuts your risk of heart disease and diabetes:
Regularly going a day without food reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Studies show that fasting releases a significant surge in human growth hormone, which is associated with speeding up metabolism and burning off fat. Shedding fat is known to cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Doctors are even starting to consider fasting as a treatment.

3. Fasting effectively treats cancer in human cells:
A study from the journal of aging found that cancer patients who included fasting into their therapy perceived fewer side effects from chemotherapy. All tests conducted so far show that fasting improves survival, slow tumor growth and limit the spread of tumors. The National Institute on Aging has also studied one type of breast cancer in detail to further understand the effects of fasting on cancer. As a result of fasting, the cancer cells tried to make new proteins and took other steps to keep growing and dividing. As a result of these steps, which in turn led to a number of other steps, damaging free radical molecules were created which broke down the cancer cells own DNA and caused their destruction! It’s cellular suicide, the cancer cell is trying to replace all of the stuff missing in the bloodstream that it needs to survive after a period of fasting, but can’t. In turn, it tries to create them and this leads to its own destruction.

This post contains direct quotes from collective-evolution.com

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Botox is a very effective treatment for chronic migraines and possibly other types of headaches and pain. However, Botox is an expensive and somewhat unpleasant treatment. Even though Botox helps a high percentage of patients (about 70%) it would be useful if we could predict who is going to respond and who is not.

One of the predictors seems to be the directionality of pain. That is, if patients with migraine who have constricting (imploding) pain or pain localized to the eye seem to respond better than those who have pain that seems to be pushing from inside out (exploding). This is not a very reliable predictor because some people have difficulty categorizing their pain in that way and because even if they do describe it clearly one way or another, this predictor is far from 100% accurate.

In a study just published in the journal Headache a group of Spanish neurologists claim that they have found a predictor with 95% accuracy. They measured blood levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and found that those with levels of CGRP above a certain number were 28 times more likely to respond to Botox than those with levels below that level.

CGRP has been shown to be very involved in the process of migraine and several drugs and antibodies which block the CGRP receptor appear to be very promising (see my recent blog post on such antibodies). So, it is not very surprising that this correlation between the response to Botox and blood level of CGRP was found. However, this finding needs to be confirmed in a larger group of patients (this study involved 81 patients) and this test needs to become available commercially since now it can be done only in research laboratories.

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Besides many other mental and physical problems, bullying in school causes headaches. This is the conclusion of a group of psychologists at the University of Padua in Italy who published their findings in the last issue of the journal Headache. They looked at 20 published studies on bullying, which included 173,775 children, and found that 14 of these studies recorded the presence of headaches. While 19% of kids who were not bullied suffered from headaches, this number was 33% in those who were. There was no difference in the incidence of headaches between kids in Europe compared to other countries.

This study confirms what has been reported for health problems in bullied kids in general. It is well known that psychological stress causes physical symptoms. Social pain is a term that psychologists use to describe the effect of peer rejection, ostracism, or loss. Recent studies have shown that physical and social pain share many physiological mechanisms in the brain. The authors also speculate that lack of coping skills, low self-esteem or lack of assertiveness may lead to more psychological and physical problems. They also call on pediatricians, school nurses and others to become more aware of the physical symptoms, such as headache, as a manifestation of bullying.

I have seen a number of children with severe persistent headaches, which required home schooling. In some of these kids bullying was a definite contributing factor, although many children are reluctant to admit this even to their parents.

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The introduction of Levadex has been delayed again, this time for a year. It seems like deja vu all over again – I wrote the same thing on this blog in April of last year. Levadex, which the manufacturer (Allergan) just renamed as Semprana, is an inhaler containing DHE. DHE, or dihydroergotamine is one of the most effective injectable drugs for migraine. It should be even better in an inhaled form because it works faster and causes much less nausea than the injection. The FDA is again delaying the launch because of manufacturing problems. Apparently, the particle size of the drug when it comes out of the inhaler is not uniform enough. Many patients are unhappy, but I am sure that the Allergan is very unhappy too since they spent almost a billion dollars to acquire this drug from a small company that developed it.

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Migraine aura precedes the headache in about 20% of patients. The most common type of aura is visual. It consists of flashing lights, sparkles, partial loss of vision, and other visual distortions, which can move across the visual field. Typical duration of the aura is 20 to 60 minutes and it can occur without a headache. Many people get frightened when experiencing an aura for the first time. Thoughts of a brain tumor spring to their minds. Although auras rarely indicate a serious problem, an MRI scan is usually indicated when an aura occurs for the first time.

MRI scans are considered to be safe in pregnancy, but the current guidelines of the FDA require labeling of the MRI devices to indicate that the safety of MRI with respect to the fetus “has not been established”. Not surprisingly, most expecting mothers instinctively try to avoid any testing. So, what to do if a pregnant woman develops an aura? A study by headache specialists at the Montefiore Headache Center in the Bronx suggests that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Of 121 pregnant women presenting with an acute headache, 76 had migraines and a third of these had an aura for the first time in their lives. Two thirds of auras occurred in the third trimester. This report should be reassuring and may help avoid unnecessary MRI scans. However, MRI may still be needed if there are other signs of a more serious neurological problem on examination or by history.

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“Visual snow” is a continuous TV-static-like visual disturbance experienced by some people who suffer from migraines and by some without migraines. A group of British doctors examined 120 patients with persistent “visual snow” and found that 70 of them also suffered from migraines. Of these 70, 37 had migraine with aura and 33 had migraine without aura. Many of these patient had other visual complaints: some had a trailing after-image when shifting their gaze, saw sparkles, were always sensitive to light, and had poor night vision. Fifty two of them also complained of noise in their ears (tinnitus).

Seventeen of these patients underwent PET scans of their brain, which were compared to PET scans of 17 normal control subjects. Those with “visual snow” had increase brain activity in two parts of the brain, indicating that this is not a psychological or an eye problem, but a brain disorder.

Unfortunately, the authors did not provide any ideas as to how to treat these patients. However, the fact that some areas of the brain were overactive, suggests that using epilepsy drugs, which suppress excessive brain cell activation and are proven to help migraines, may help. These drugs include gabapentin (Neurontin), topiramate (Topamax), and divalproate (Depakote). Before using drugs though, I would suggest trying magnesium orally or intravenously because magnesium also reduces excitability of the nervous system and because half of migraine sufferers have low magnesium levels. See an article on magnesium and migraines here.

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The benign nature of white matter lesions (WML) on MRI scans of patients with migraine was noted in a post last year. While they appear to be benign, they are disconcerting nevertheless. It is possible that we haven’t yet discovered the negative effects they may have.

A study by Chinese researchers published in the Journal of Neurology reported on MRI scans in 141 people, including 45 healthy controls without migraines, 38 chronic migraine sufferers who were not overusing acute migraine medications and 58 patients with chronic migraines who were overusing these medications. They found that women, but not men, who were not overusing acute medications had more WML compared with controls and those who were overusing medications. As reported by other researchers, the number of WML increased with age. Interestingly, most patients who overused medications were taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. The authors concluded that taking NSAIDs may have a preventive effect on the development of WMLs, possibly because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Previous studies have shown that aspirin does not even cause medication overuse headaches, unlike drugs with caffeine (Excedrin, Fiorinal, Fioricet), opioid analgesics (Vicodin, Percocet, codeine, etc), and to a lesser extent NSAIDs.

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Idiopathic intracranial hypertension is also called pseudotumor cerebri because just like with a brain tumor, the
pressure is increased inside the skull. This condition usually presents with a headache and sometimes with visual symptoms. Increased intracranial pressure is not only a very painful condition, but also, if left untreated, can cause loss of vision and strokes.

An observational study just published in JAMA Neurology reports on 165 patients with pseudotumor seen by a group of neurologists and ophthalmologists across the country. The mean age of these patients was 29 and only 4 were men. The vast majority of them were obese with an average body mass index of 40, while normal is below 25. Headache was present in 84% of patients and 68% reported transient loss of vision. Half of them had back pains and pulse-like noise in the ears (pulsatile tinnitus) was reported by 52%. Visual loss was found in 32% and it was usually loss of the peripheral vision with an enlarged blind spot in the middle.

The authors concluded that pseudotumor cerebri mostly occurs in young obese women. The importance of this report is in reminding physicians to consider this diagnosis in young obese women with headaches. The diagnosis is confirmed by performing a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), which is the only way to measure intracranial pressure. An MRI scan is also always done (before the spinal tap), to make sure that it is not a real tumor that is causing increased pressure and to visualize ventricles (fluid-filled spaces) inside the brain. These ventricles are usually small in patients with pseudotumor. Performing the lumbar puncture involves draining of the cerebrospinal fluid, which can immediately relieve the headache and also improve vision. Some patients require regular spinal taps or placement of a draining shunt (usually from one of the brain’s ventricle or spinal canal to the abdominal cavity).

However, many patients respond to medications, such as acetazolamide (Diamox) or topiramate (Topamax). Weight loss is the most effective, albeit difficult treatment. The same group of physicians reported that acetazolamide combined with weight loss was somewhat more effective than weight loss alone. Only rarely, when vision is acutely threatened, a surgical procedure to relieve pressure inside the optic nerve is performed by an ophthalmologist (the procedure is called optic nerve sheath fenestration).

In summary, increased intracranial pressure is often mistaken for chronic migraine and should be considered in every young female obese headache sufferer.

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Don’t use Wikipedia for medical information and tell your doctor not to either. It is the most popular reference site not only for the lay public, but also for doctors – anywhere from 47% to 70% of physicians and medical students admit to using it as a reference.

A study just published in a medical journal shows that Wikipedia very often offers erroneous information.The researchers looked at articles on 10 common conditions: coronary artery disease, lung cancer, major depression, concussion, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive lung disease, hypertension,diabetes, back pain, and hyperlipidemia.

Articles on each condition were evaluated independently by two physicians to make sure that the evaluations were not biased and were consistent between two doctors. The information on Wikipedia was compared to the up-to-date information on these diseases published in scientific medical journals. Shockingly, only information on concussion was accurate, while information on the other nine conditions contained serious errors. This study did not include migraines or other headaches, but it is very likely that at least some information on these conditions are also incorrect.

Tell your doctor about this study, just to make sure that he or she knows about it. For consumers, the best sources of information are medlineplus.com, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions, and WebMD.com.

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