Share This Page

A pressing need for migraine relief

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 9:18 p.m.

Katie Biggs' students often know before she does that a migraine is about to strike.

A high-school English teacher and theater coach in Naperville, Ill., Biggs, 42, has had migraine headaches since she was 8 years old, and they've increased in intensity since then.

New research on headache and pain management will be the focus of a symposium, workshop and posters presented by scientists at the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association, held in conjunction with the Association of British Neurologists, starting Friday in Boston.

Migraine is one of about 300 types of headache described in medical manuals, says neurologist Richard Lipton, director of Montefiore Headache Center and professor of neurology at Einstein Medical Center in New York. To diagnose patients and determine which treatments might help, he says, doctors first must rule out underlying causes. These can be serious (brain tumor, stroke, aneurysm) or, less so (hangover or flu).

Once those are ruled out, that leaves what doctors call “primary-headache disorders,” meaning the headache isn't a symptom of some other health issue. The major ones:

Migraine

Almost 30 million Americans are afflicted with this most common form of disabling headache. It tends to run in families, and some patients have them 16 times a month or more, says neurologist Seymour Diamond, executive chairman of the National Headache Foundation. More often, patients have two to four a month. Migraine is linked to hormonal changes; 70 percent of sufferers are women.

After a migraine is triggered, a series of brain activities begins that Diamond describes as a “spreading wave over the cortex,” the nerve tissue covering the outer part of the brain.

Cluster headache

These most painful of headaches occur on one side of the head, often near the eye, and sufferers often have two to 10 attacks a day.

“It's described as a hot poker in the eye, a searing, stabbing, debilitating pain,” Lipton says. About 80 percent to 90 percent of sufferers are male, for reasons unknown, Diamond says. “People get markedly depressed,” he adds. Treatments include triptan medications and high-volume oxygen, steroids and lithium.

Tension headache

These occur when the muscles of the scalp or neck tense in response to stress, anxiety, depression or a head injury. Lipton says tension headaches have pressure on both sides, and are not made worse by physical activity, light or sound, unlike migraines.

Anita Manning is a contributing writer for USA Today.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.