Managing Migraines

Easing one of the most common sources of chronic pain is a multipronged effort.


Staying focused on making it through one hour at a time, I’d close my eyes for 10 deep breaths and smother my head in ice packs on days when it got bad. On good days, I frequently obsessed about when the next cycle would start.

I was a prisoner to my pain.

I am one of approximately 40 million Americans who experience migraine headaches according to the Migraine Research Foundation, and each person’s experience is entirely unique. My version is an intense throbbing at my temples and base of my skull, usually accompanied by nausea, dizziness and exhaustion. Only by trying dozens of doctors and treatments have I learned how to advocate for myself and navigate the complex journey of finding relief from chronic pain — and even in the care of trained professionals, it could still feel like blindly throwing very small darts at a massive and moving target.

What I Tried

I had been prone to bad headaches since adolescence, but I never had a knockdown, drag-out migraine headache until my early twenties. My family practice doctor called them “tension headaches,” but after months spent exhausting over-the-counter pain-killing options, I saw another doctor who just gave me more drugs. I tried a smattering of Triptans, beta blockers, muscle relaxers, painkillers and finally, anti-depressants, with mixed results and terrible side effects.

As I started regularly missing out on social outings and family time, I had to field a barrage of questions and suggestions that just made me feel more exasperated. Every time a treatment plan failed, I felt defeated and hopeless. The pharmaceuticals were essential to numb the pain — even if only for a few hours a time — but I was adamant that I would understand why I kept getting these incapacitating headaches.

Few doctors who are trained in Western medicine focus on the root cause of migraine pain and tend to neglect lifestyle factors such as nutrition when devising a treatment plan for patients. So, I tried the holistic route. I received wonderful care and learned so much at 8 Branches Chinese Medicine in Bay View, but I found that complementary medicine is just that — complementary. For me, it wasn’t a fix, but it did help me relax. I spent thousands of dollars on chiropractic care, massages, physical therapy, biofeedback and supplements. I even saw a dentist who specialized in headache treatment. But the migraines kept coming back and got progressively worse as I got older and life got more complicated.

Dr. Rebecca Cogwell Anderson is a professor in the department of anesthesiology and director of integrated mental health in the Pain Management Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She has had success using cognitive behavior therapy and heart rate variability biofeedback. For visual learners like me, watching a computer screen showing the wavelengths of my heart rate steady as I practiced deep breathing techniques was the proof I needed. This was the first time I understood the role of my central nervous system in my pain response.

“I am not sure that patients are really aware of all of the treatment modalities’ available for the management of their pain,” says Anderson. “Pain treatment is definitely not a ‘one pill fits all’ type of situation.” She often sees how the cyclical pattern of chronic pain affects patients’ mental health in a profound way. “A sense of helplessness impacts management of pain, so it’s important to help the patient gain a sense of self efficacy and maintain a positive attitude as much as possible.”

The Role of Emotions

Last year, I fell victim to a cycle of pain and a sense of helplessness. After having my second child, the mix of stress, emotions, hormones and chronic pain paralyzed me like I’ve never felt before. I was constantly overwhelmed by the demands of a career, keeping up a home and caring for my babies. I would get choked up with feelings of anxiety that leaked its way up from my gut, past my heart and straight into the hollowness of my throat. I was stretched so far, in so many different directions, I felt like an overinflated balloon that was either going to burst any moment or slowly deflate and suffocate those around me in a cloud of bad energy.

A gentle nudge from my husband led me to reinvigorate my efforts to cope with my migraines — but sometimes taking care of yourself and getting back to a place where you feel whole again can feel like a full time job. Still, I knew I needed to show up for the things in my life that require and merit vitality, focus and energy.

I found Dr. Traci Purath of Purath Headache & Neurology through a web search. She was trained as a neurologist and specialized in migraine care after seeing the debilitating effects the headaches had on her husband and three children. “When people are in chronic pain, so many emotions play in. There is often the financial issue, time missed from work, time away from family,” she explains. “How could it not effect your emotions? It’s a big life changer.”

She listened to my story closely to figure out where the pain was coming from and helped me to realize that my headaches were likely stemming from structural imbalances in my body. Purath offered a solution to enhance the other treatment methods I was continuing to pursue. She stresses that care for a patient with chronic pain works best if all doctors work together.

Purath most often uses pharmaceuticals; a new class of preventive drugs called CGRP inhibitors, nerve blocks and Botox to treat migraines.  “It’s not uncommon to have people taking several different things to get them to a more stable place,” she explains. “Over time, the brain can be retrained so we can start pulling meds away when people get into a good place for a couple of months.”

I was open to trying anything, but very afraid of needles. I had a baby, so I thought: “How much worse could one of those little needles hurt?” It turns out having needles injected into your head and neck does indeed hurt a lot. Both Botox and Aimovig, a new preventive monthly shot, have contributed to cutting the number of monthly migraines in half for me. Temporary pain trumps chronic pain any day of the week.

Naturally Helpful

Aubrey Poglajen at Ananda Healing Collective also came to my rescue. I found her by way of a good friend’s recommendation. She offers mental, emotional and spiritual healing through energy work therapies like acupuncture, craniosacral therapy (CST), human design and reiki. I was skeptical, but immediately at ease and curious 10 minutes into the mandatory pre-treatment consultation.

All of the services at Ananda focus on getting to the root of chronic pain and helping people understand their own mechanics. “When people get in tune with how they operate, they start making better lifestyle decisions, which supports healing,” says Poglajen.

She read my human design chart, a method that uses birth data to give you a road map of your genetic design. For me, understanding and accepting how I am wired has allowed me to choose the best treatment options to address my pain.

I had tried CST before, but my body had a much better response with Poglajen. Simply through touch, I could feel my soft tissue release and tension melt off my body like butter on a hot ear of corn. She brings an advanced training in CST called SomatoEmotional Release, which aims to resolve latent emotional trauma. Seeing how emotions have such a profound physical impact has been so surprising.

Poglajen attributes her success as a practitioner to being completely committed to the work on a personal level. She sees a colleague for monthly CST sessions to work through past trauma of her parent’s divorce and a chaotic home life. Poglajen admits: “It’s hard for people to hold that space for someone’s healing and to be present if they aren’t going through their own release.”

What I Learned

Sadly, there is no quick fix. That much is obvious. Patience is key, with yourself and the treatments. Healing requires purposeful change, and changing old habits and your overall lifestyle requires a lot of discipline. Thus, the biggest hurdle for people in overcoming chronic pain is being committed to diving in and doing that work. There are lots of layers to that process and no definitive timeline. But it is key to note that while people need more care up front, measureable results are rarely far off and become greater as people keep at it and require less intervention.

If at first a therapy doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to try it again with a different practitioner. It took me two CST practitioners and three physical therapists to find someone who looked at my body as a
fully functioning system and taught me how misaligned hips can wreak havoc on the neck muscles, causing headaches.

Most importantly, celebrate small steps toward feeling good again. I might not be migraine free, but I worry less about my next episode because I know it won’t last as long as before and that I can find relaxation and release through complementary medicine. And again, you are your best advocate. Keep asking questions and researching until you are satisfied with the answers and options. Life is too short to be a prisoner to pain. MKE

Migraine Facts

Is your debilitating headache a migraine? Consider these facts from the National Headache Foundation.

  • Migraines typically start during adolescence or the 20s.
  • 70 percent of all migraine sufferers are women.
  • 52 percent of migraine sufferers are undiagnosed by a health care provider. Migraines are misdiagnosed as tension or sinus headaches almost as frequently as they are correctly diagnosed.
  • Migraines affect 13 percent of the population one in every four U.S. households has a migraine sufferer.
  • Industries lose an estimated $31 billion per year due to absenteeism, lost productivity and medical expenses caused by migraines.
  • 24 precent of migraine sufferers report headaches so severe that they have sought emergency room care.