Jessica Vachon was excited to begin studying art at Florida International University and starting her first job as a part-time retail clerk a couple years ago.
But she soon began having a throbbing pain on the right side of her head every day when she went to work.
“It had its own heartbeat,” said Vachon, 22.
To ease her pain, Vachon would have to leave work early, take an Advil and put a cold compress on her head before heading straight to bed. On family vacations, she would often return back to the hotel while her family continued sightseeing.
“Having headaches became a part of my life,” Vachon said.
The most common type of headaches are migraines, which can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on just one side of the head, according to the Mayo Clinic. They’re often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.
The neurological condition affects 38 million people in the United States — 18 percent women, 6 percent men, and 10 percent children, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.
Women often suffer more than men from migraines. Although there is no known cause, hormone changes, such as fluctuations in estrogen levels in women, may be one of the triggers for migraines. Some women experience migraines around their menstrual cycle, said Dr. Teshamae Monteith, assistant professor of clinical neurology and director of the Headache Program at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine
Menstrual migraines can be more difficult to treat due to fluctuations in hormones, Monteith said. They may also last longer and be more painful. Migraine attacks can last four to 72 hours, and in some cases, a migraine attack can last for more than a week. “Some migraine sufferers can miss out on a good quality of life and social interaction,” Monteith said.
But there is hope. Patients should first visit a neurologist to get the correct diagnosis for their condition, said Dr. Maike Blaya, neurologist and headache specialist at Memorial Neuroscience Institute, who treats Vachon.
Treatments can include preventive and preemptive medications to prevent a migraine or to curb a migraine that is beginning. Studies have also shown that relaxation exercises can be just as effective as medication to control pain, Blaya said. Vitamins, such as magnesium as well as vitamins B2 and CoQ10, have also been shown in studies to help some migraine sufferers, Blaya noted.
Another form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) where a patient who may be depressed due to having migraines works with a mental health counselor, Blaya said.
“The body and mind have to be as one for a patient to improve,” Blaya said. “Having a positive attitude toward their migraine treatment will help a patient succeed.”
Magnetic pulsation devices have also proven to help migraine sufferers, Blaya said. The patient holds the device to their head before a headache occurs to prevent or decrease the prospects of getting a headache. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved two magnetic pulsation devices, Cefaly and Enuera.
The FDA also recently approved the transcranial magnetic stimulator (TMS) for people who experience an aura, a perceptual change such as a bad odor or flashing lights or wavy lines, before their migraines begin. Patients hold the device to the back of the head to send a magnetic pulse. Monteith has prescribed TMS to several patients and is hopeful that it may help those prone to side effects.
Although not ready for FDA approval, new laboratory experiments offer hope. Researchers have observed that calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) is released during severe attacks and can provoke migraine pain, Monteith said. Triptans, drugs used to treat migraines, normalize CGRP levels. Drugs that can lower or alter CGRP levels are promising for new therapies.
For migraine sufferers to have a better quality of life, they should exercise regularly, eat healthy and get a good night’s sleep, Blaya said. Avoid any food triggers such as fried foods or foods high in sodium, typically canned, processed or fast foods.
Patients should also keep a headache diary to help identify triggers. Other triggers include alcohol, caffeinated drinks and change in sleep patterns.
Studies have shown that stress is the biggest trigger, Blaya said. Vachon said the stress of starting her first job triggered her headaches. Although people can’t avoid stress, Blaya encourages patients to listen to their body. If a patient is tired or exhausted, this might be a trigger.
Since she began taking preventive medication daily, Vachon has only suffered two migraines in the past six months. She continues to attend FIU where she will be a senior in the fall. After graduating, she would like to become an illustrator for children’s books.
She also works part-time in retail and is now training for the Escape to Miami Triathlon in September that she will be competing in with her parents. She caught the triathlon bug from her father, who’d competed in several before Vachon began last year.
“Once you start doing them, you just can’t stop,” Vachon said.