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Psychology of headaches

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. TaraBrach.com offers free podcasts for meditation and ThisWayUp.org.au 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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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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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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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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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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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
Panic
09. Suddenly scared for no reason
12. Spells of terror or panic
18. Feeling fearful

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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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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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