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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