Wednesday, April 30, 2008

my torrid love affair with Topamax

I'm currently on my third trial of Topamax, one of only four medications that has been approved by the FDA for use as a migraine preventive medication. I have taken Topamax twice before. The first time was for two and a half years in college, which was a great success, and in fact is the reason I was able to finish college on time. The Topa got rid of my chronic daily headache within a week of me starting the 25 mg dose, and when I increased to the 50 mg dose I only had one or two migraines a semester. The difference in my quality of life was amazing. After I graduated, my neuro at the time suggested I titrate off of it to see how I would do.

I didn't do very well, and I've been looking for a preventive regimen ever since.

Neuro #2 had me try Topa right off the bat. This trial (#2) was for two months in the beginning of 2007. I had a few days where it seemed the Topa might be working, but my CDH came back, and my neuro and I decided to discontinue it in favor of other drugs.

When I saw neuro #3 at the beginning of this year and she reviewed my history, she noted that I had only been on the Topa for about two months, which wasn't long enough for a fair trial. Preventives can take up to three months to start working. A long time to wait while you're in pain. At the time, I didn't know it could take that long so I didn't push the issue. Knowing more now, when neuro #3 suggested I give the Topa another trial, I was willing to do it, since I had such great success with it in college.

Well, I started the Topamax in February, and it's been a bit of a wild ride.

Neuro #3 had me on a pretty standard titration schedule - start with 25 mg, increase to 50 mg after the first week, then 75 mg after another two weeks. At 25 mg, I didn't notice many side effects. At 50 mg, I noticed some, but they were expected: taste changes, dry mouth, cognitive issues after a few weeks, lessened appetite. At 75 mg, new side effects cropped up that I never had had before: tingling, hair loss, tremors, nausea, stomach pains. Nothing intolerable. I stayed at this dose for about five weeks, as my migraine cycled worse and I generally felt unwell. The side effects seemed to level out, so I kept with the Topa.

After I fired neuro #3 and had a particularly bad week of pain, I called my PCP out of desperation. She suggested I increase my dose to 100 mg to see if that would make a difference before my appointment with neuro #4 next month. I decided to give that a try, but after a weekend of new and frightening migraine symptoms, I decreased the dose again to give my body a break. This was ten days ago.

Since then, I've been developing new side effects. The tremors and tingling that started at 100 mg haven't completely gone away. The nausea and lack of appetite have gotten worse. Still I stuck with it, hoping the side effects would ease, especially since the last few days have been relatively low-pain.

Except the last few days, I've started to wonder if the Topa is contributing to my moodiness and depression. Last night, when I had a weird and very out-of-character anxiety episode, I knew it was the Topa. So today I decreased my dose to 50 mg once again.

It's really amazing to me that a drug that my body once tolerated so well, and that was so successful for preventing my CDH and chronic migraines is now treating my body so poorly. Hopefully I'll feel better in a few days after the higher dosage is out of my system.

When I see neuro #4 in three weeks, I plan to tell him that I don't want to continue on the Topa (or the nortriptyline I'm also taking - but those side effects pale in comparison to the recent issues with the Topa). I hate giving up on a drug like this, but I can't put up with these side effects.

While I know that every medication that doesn't work is one step closer to finding one that will, it's hard not to feel at least a little bit like a failure when one doesn't work out - especially when it's such a spectacular failure.

Monday, April 28, 2008

headache poetry contest winners announced

The 2008 Migraine and Headache Poetry Contest winners have been announced over at MMC, and I am very excited to announce that my poem won third place!

Teri Robert's announcement can be found here, which links to all of the winners and honorable mentions, as well as all of the poems submitted this year.

I encourage you to check them out - there were some great entries this year!

Friday, April 25, 2008

photophobia and fluorescent lighting: a quest

Like many other migraineurs, I suffer from photophobia, a sensitivity to light. My photophobia is constant, and gets worse as my pain gets worse, but since I've been living with this particular migraine since November, the photophobia has been particularly stubborn as well.

Also like many other migraineurs, I cannot tolerate fluorescent lighting. Part of the issue is the color of the light itself: the fluorescents at my office are tinted a warmer yellow, which I can live with, as opposed to the horrendous (and cheaper) blue-white found in many stores. These fluorescents not only immediately worsen my migraine pain, dizziness and nausea, but also have an unpleasant tendency of sending me running to the nearest bathroom with soupey poopies within 15 minutes. If my office had this blue-white lighting, I would have had to leave my job already.

Unfortunately, the tint is not the entire story. The imperceptible flicker of fluorescents is enough to drive the sensitive migraine brain wacko. This makes it a particularly difficult problem to deal with. Many of us cope by wearing sunglasses, or tinted glasses, but this is not always a viable option for me since I work in a field where I regularly meet with clients and consultants, so wearing sunglasses to these meetings would not be appropriate. It also doesn't do anything for the flicker, really, just gives our eyes a break from the brightness of the lighting.

What is a migraineur to do?

Fortunately, the woman in charge of office services at my office is also a migraineur, so she was able to help me get the fixtures over my cube turned off. This makes it possible for me to get through a workday without being miserable. It does nothing, however, for the fluorescents in our conference rooms or in the rest of our office.

Some months ago, I came across mention of the use of Nike Maxsight tinted contact lenses as a way to ease light sensitivity in Dr Alexander Mauskop's Headache NewsBlog. This reference simmered in the back of my head for a while, and I have since come across other mentions of the use of contacts to address light sensitivity. The Migraine Girl asked in an entry about MigraLens and Irlen contacts specifically for combating fluorescent lighting sensitivity.

After much Googling, I finally scheduled an appointment with my ophthalmologist when I discovered that his office carries the Nike lenses. I'll also note here that Nike discontinued these lenses a few months ago, but I figured I could at least schedule the appointment and talk with the eye doc and see if he had any suggestions. Who knows, the Nike lenses could be my saviors, and I would just order them in bulk from an internet supplier.

I went in for my appointment two and a half weeks ago with my eye doc, and explained my problem. He thought for a few minutes, then came out with a surprising statement - he had a few ideas, and he wasn't sure what would work but he was willing to work with me until we found a reasonable solution. He specializes in contact lenses, so I felt somewhat confident in his statement. He had some trial Nike lenses at his other office that he would look through to see if he could find any for me, and he would also dig up some other trial tinted lenses - just regular cosmetic FreshLook lenses with a slight tint - for me to try.

By the end of that week, he had the Nike lenses ready for me. He scheduled a two-week follow-up appointment with me, to give me time to try out the lenses.

First reaction: they make me look like some sort of demonic beastie (migraine beastie, maybe?). The ones I tried are the grey-green tint, which actually wash my eyes out to black. A very strange effect, but one I would put up with if they solved the fluorescent lighting problem. I would even put up with the startled coworkers.

Unfortunately, I only made it a few days with the lenses. I discovered my brain started to freak out after wearing them for about six hours. The tinting in them was too strange a color for all-day wear. (Imagine the color of bug lights - that's what color these lenses made everything.) This tint was especially pronounced on cloudy days, and we have a lot of those here in the Pacific Northwest. I also had a run of several severe migraine days, which may or may not be related to the lenses. They did help out a lot with sunlight though, when worn under my regular sunglasses, so it wasn't a total loss.

I had my follow-up appointment with my eye doc today. He offered me another, much more expensive option, which is prosthetic lenses. With these custom lenses, he can control exactly how much light is allowed into my eye, and I will not see any sort of a tint. He took some measurements of my eyes for these lenses and told me my pupils seem to dilate more than they should (not surprising - they also dilate unevenly depending on the severity of my migraine).

I feel these are a better option for me than the Nike lenses, but custom = expensive. He's taking a look into pricing for me and his office will call before they order them. The price tag should come in somewhere under $1000 - I may be able to get some medical insurance coverage for this, but it's not likely. (My vision insurance is basically only enough to cover my annual exam.)

I will be seeing my new headache specialist in just under a month, and I plan to pick his brain about this, at least because I want to see if he'll write a letter of medical necessity. He may have some other ideas too, who knows. The nice thing about these lenses is that they will reduce the amount of light entering my eyes in the periphery, which I think may help quite a bit with the fluorescent lighting issue. It won't solve it - really, nothing short of avoidance or removal will - but it's something.

Before I make this much of an investment, I will be doing some thinking about this. A part of me had hoped that my migraines would resolve somewhat quickly so I wouldn't have to deal with the photophobia/fluorescent lighting issue. But that is not likely to happen, and I need to find some ways to make my life more livable in the meantime.

Crazy idea? Maybe. As a side note, more blog space will be devoted to the fluorescent lighting issue in the future, on the advocacy side of things. Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The end of last year, when I was still seeing neurologist #2, I remember questioning the need for an accurate diagnosis. After all, chronic head pain is chronic head pain, and I need to find an effective preventive regimen regardless of what kind it is. It was about this time I began to wonder if I needed to consult with an actual headache specialist - someone who dedicated their practice to the study and treatment of headache and migraine - rather than just a neurologist. Since neuro #2 began to run out of ideas, I decided a fresh pair of eyes on my case wouldn't hurt, and I asked for a referral to a specialist, AKA neuro #3.

I was fortunate (I thought) to get in with neuro #3 in about two weeks. She was just coming back early from maternity leave since the other neurologist in her practice was leaving, and had not scheduled any patients yet, so I was at the top of the list. So I had virtually first pick of appointments and was able to schedule fairly quickly. The first appointment went well, and after looking at the list of five preventives I had trialed and failed, she wanted to try me on Botox, her main interest and area of research. If that didn't work out, we would retry me on Topamax, since I hadn't given it enough of a trial the year before.

After two months of waiting around, my insurance rejected the pre-authorization claim for Botox, labeling it "experimental". After a number of phone calls, she had finally agreed to write me a script for the Topamax, and once the insurance rejected the Botox I scheduled another appointment with her to discuss my options.

I had this appointment with her about a month ago. I went in well-prepared with a list of questions, and brought DBF with me in case he had any questions. For some reason, this appointment didn't seem to go as well as the first. Neuro #3 went over all my questions with me, but was completely unwilling to even discuss the possibility of rescue meds - saying simply that "they don't work" - and didn't want to discuss any treatment options for my daily migraine pain. When I asked her the difference between chronic daily headache and transformed migraine, she said they were different terms for the same diagnosis, and implied that my ongoing migraine is simply a headache - an implication I did not pick up on right away.

After the appointment, I had a weird sense of hopelessness I couldn't immediately pin down. The following week, my daily pain spiked again, so I decided to call in to try for an IV treatment, which neuro #3 had reluctantly offered to me as an option when I questioned her about it, with the caveat that it wouldn't do much for my "regular daily pain". It took me five days to get in for this treatment because of her irregular schedule: she typically only works three days a week. This scheduling mess, coupled with the feeling I couldn't shake that she had given up on me when the Botox was denied, finally pushed me to fire her. (My mom later pointed out to me that since I couldn't do the Botox, my doc had demoted me to her B-list of patients.)

Fast-forward to this past weekend, with all these strange symptoms I've been having. I called into the nurse's line early Monday morning to leave a message about the new symptoms that cropped up over the weekend. I got a call back - which I missed, of course, so the nurse left a message - saying that they would pass the message along to my doc on Tuesday when she was back in the office.

Tuesday (yesterday) afternoon, I finally got another call back - which I missed again, because they only ever call when I'm in a meeting at work - with a message from a different nurse. Neuro #3 said the symptoms were probably not from the latest IV treatment, and "may be" related to the "headache". If I still had some concerns, I could schedule an appointment with her nurse practitioner, and here is her phone number. Click.

Are you kidding me??

This short message confirms my instincts in firing this doctor's sorry butt were correct. She will not even call this migraine a migraine, only a headache. But now it makes more sense why she was so unwilling to offer any treatment for it, since she thinks it is only a headache, not worthy of any treatment.

So, it's on to neuro #4. I have an appointment scheduled with him on May 21, four weeks from today. I am much more encouraged by his office than by that of neuro #3. His staff is much more polite and helpful. I received my new patient information packet in the mail within a few days of my appointment being scheduled - rather than the day before my appointment - and the forms are much more detailed, including a depression screening form. I'm just very glad I didn't wait to move on to a new doctor and went with my instincts about neuro #3.

Now, I just need to get through the next few weeks.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

betrayed by my own head

A few months ago, I read a book by Michael Stein, MD, called The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness. While much of this book is framed in the author's experience with terminal illness (not his own, but that in his family), he does speak to chronic pain throughout. He divides the book into four parts, corresponding to the four reactions he sees to chronic illness: betrayal, terror, loss and loneliness. Betrayal is certainly one of the emotional reactions I seem to revisit frequently on my journey toward acceptance of this disease.

This weekend - Saturday night, especially - was another visit of betrayal.

Over the past two years, my chronic daily headache has gradually become daily migraines, and now a continual migraine since about the end of November. On one hand, this has taken away the unexpected and often frustrating aspect of episodic migraine, which is you just never know when it might strike. I always know when it will strike, which is always. I wake up with the pain, I eat, breathe, work, think, walk, do and sleep with the pain. It's there, a constant resident in my brain, whether I like it or not. I'm doing what I can to dislodge it, but in the meantime, I'm stuck.

My brain decided to play a new trick on me Saturday night.

DBF and I were curled up on the couch after dinner, watching tv, when I had this weird wave of dizziness pass over me, followed by pins and needles all over and a sort of hot flash. Then the tingling settled in on just the left side of my body (arm and leg). After a few minutes, when it didn't pass, I started to get rather scared. Something isn't right, my instincts are telling me.

You see, a migraine that lasts longer than 72 hours, without at least a 4-hour break in pain while awake is status migrainous, considered a medical emergency because it puts the migraineur at increased risk of migrainous stroke. Having had this particular migraine since last November, I pay extra attention to new symptoms. And like any educated migraineur, I know the symptoms of a stroke.

So, I told DBF what was going on, that I was scared. We decided to call 911. He told the dispatcher what was going on, described my symptoms and told them how long my migraine had been going on. The paramedics got here relatively quickly - though it seemed like an eternity, of course - and checked my vitals while they asked me some questions about my symptoms. They left the decision up to me whether they would bring me into the hospital or not, but they saw nothing life-threatening that concerned them. They did remind me that they are only firemen, of course, not doctors. I decided not to go with them.

I did call the doctor on-call at my fired specialist's office to see if he thought I should seek emergency attention. He spoke with me for probably ten minutes, asked some questions about my symptoms, about my IV treatment on Friday, including which drugs they had given me, when, and if I had had them before; as well as if I had had these symptoms before. He also checked to see if I had had an MRI before (I had one a month ago that came back normal). He believes these new symptoms to be another manifestation of this ongoing migraine and described it as "complicated migraine", which is a descriptive term (not a standard diagnosis). He did not see any need for me to seek immediate care, but did encourage me to call my doctor today.

As unpredictable as this illness often is, we still expect it to follow a certain pattern. My pain is usually here, I usually have these symptoms, I usually get a migraine after encountering these triggers. Whenever our disease breaks the pattern, it's frightening for one thing, but we are also left with a sense of betrayal. Migraine beast, it's hard enough to cope with you on a normal day, but why do you have to change your pattern?

The tingling has not gone away since Saturday night, but I also have not developed any new symptoms. The doc on call told me some specific things to watch for that would indicate a need for immediate medical attention. I called into the nurse's line this morning and left a message about these new symptoms; I got a call back asking for some more information, and letting me know the message would be passed along to my (fired) specialist tomorrow since she was already gone for the day. (Another sign that I know I made the right choice in firing this doctor - unfortunately she's all I've got until May 21 when I see the new guy.)

The good news is, I know I can rely on DBF in case of emergency. He took me seriously and didn't question the need to call 911. He kept me calm while we were waiting for the medics and when it was all said and done, gave me a big hug when I started to cry. And cheered me up by making me laugh. Because this whole thing freaked me out.

So, a reminder to all of you fellow migraineurs out there: if any new, unexpected or worrisome symptoms crop up - even if they are just new symptoms - please check with your doctor at the very least. When we are dealing with brain issues, it is much better to just have things checked out.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

coming out of the (migraine) closet: a borrowed subject

Fellow migraineur and blogger, Megan Oltman, wrote an excellent post yesterday (as always) about coming out of the migraine closet. She makes the analogy of living publicly with this disease, of coming out with it like coming out with sexual orientation, and the need for education as a path to acceptance. She's right - the only way we migraineurs will ever get the compassion we deserve is through understanding, which will only come after education. And it's up to us.

Megan is doing an outstanding job, I think, of living out in the open with migraine disease. She doesn't hide her migraines, doesn't apologize for them, and does her best to ask for reasonable accommodations as she needs them. She educates those around her without preaching. I'm sure like the rest of us she still encounters those who just don't "get it", but that's to be expected. I give her a lot of credit for living her disease so publicly, because I'm not there yet.

I'm still in the migraine closet, so to speak.

For the most part, I don't discuss my disease. My boss and team at work know that I get migraines, but that's about the extent of it. I did print out some information about migraines from MMC and AHDA - including "What is a Migraine?", Understanding Migraineurs letter and the AHDA flier - to pin up outside my cubicle. Within the same week, I faced some incredibly insensitive comments from one of my coworkers, whom I promptly named "Mr Insensitive".

In college, I lost a lot of friends because of my migraines. At that time, I didn't even understand what I was going through, so I couldn't educate them. I thought I was just having sinus headaches. Along with the migraines came a bout with depression, and the friends I had were unwilling/unable to be a good support system at the time. Fair weather friends indeed.

I don't mean to make this into a sob story, but being burned in the past has made it difficult for me to be upfront with others in my life about the severity of my migraines, and I know I'm not alone in this. It's a subject we discuss every day on the MMC boards. Who do we tell? How do we tell them? How do we deal with those in our lives who don't get it? There is no one size fits all answer, that's for sure.

I've been working to educate those in my life who are close to me. DBF is reading Teri Robert's excellent book, Living Well With Migraine Disease and Headaches. I feed tidbits of information and articles to my mom. I sent the link to this blog to my sister. (Both my mom and sister, like most of the women on my mother's side of the family, are migraineurs.) Cliche though it may be, knowledge is indeed power.

So I may not be living openly and comfortably with my disease, but I'm getting there. One foot is poking out of the closet, at least.


Thanks to Megs for a great topic!

Friday, April 18, 2008

(IV) drugs? yes, please

This week was rough, even by my high pain tolerance standards. I started the week with a bout of depression, which isn't unusual for me. Migraine and depression are comordid conditions, meaning the two often exist together but one doesn't necessarily cause the other. In my own experience, I tend to have mild depression when my migraines are out of control, with occasional more severe depression.

That's what happened earlier this week. Depression bad enough I didn't even want to get out of bed and go to work. I knew it was the migraine beastie, zapping my serotonin levels, but knowing it doesn't ever make it go away. It mostly passed by Wednesday, just in time for a couple nights of severe pain.

Both Wednesday and Thursday nights the pain was bad, up to an 8 out of 10, and with some bad dizziness and nausea. I had exhausted my week's allowance of Imitrex, an abortive medication, which my doctor has me combine with ibuprofen to increase its effectiveness. I can only take
Imitrex two to three times a week before I risk medication overuse headache (MOH). Because my pain is daily, I have to carefully track when and how often I take any abortive medication. So I was stuck with nothing but my comfort measures - ice pack, essential oils, Altoids. I also have promethazine (generic for Phenergan), an anti-nausea med, that I can take.

This morning I called my fired specialist's office to see if I could get in for an IV infusion treatment. I had tried this once before earlier this month, and while it didn't get rid of my pain (nothing has), it did get it down to a much more tolerable level. The first time, I had DHE, Toradol and Reglan for the nausea. The Reglan gave me awful anxiety, and made me woozy.

My appointment was scheduled for 1:00, but they didn't take me back to the exam room until almost 2:00. Let me pause here to say one of the things I hate most about this clinic is that there are fluorescent lights everywhere. Being in the architecture field, I can understand more than most why this clinic would have ended up with them, but they haven't done anything to mitigate the problem. At the very least, they could have put some desk lamps in the exam rooms or something. Nope. Instead they will turn off the lights for you if you ask, but then they have to leave the door open so it's not pitch black in the rooms. (HIPAA issues, anyone?)

This time I made sure to ask for a different anti-emetic, and they gave me Phenergan. I didn't get the anxiety, but the wooziness was worse and it actually made me more nauseous. So they tried Zofran, a med usually used for chemo patients, but with a much better side effect profile. Bingo! Now I know which one to ask for. I also got Toradol and DHE, same as last time. The nurse who did my infusion this time was much more experienced than the one who did it last time, so she infused the meds more slowly and with more time in between than the first time I went. I napped for a little bit while I was there, since the Toradol and Phenergan both made me sleepy. I didn't leave there until 4:30.

DBF was kind enough to come with me this time. He sat with me the whole time, talked with me, and held my hand. He went to find a nurse when the side effects from the Phenergan were making me feel sick. When we came home he got me settled on the couch in the living room and sat with me for a few minutes until I fell asleep, and warmed dinner up for me.

My pain isn't gone, of course. It never is. But it is down to a 2, which is lower than it ever is on its own, and lower than I can get it with any of the meds I have on hand. I think I may talk to my new specialist about injectable DHE as an abortive option. (I'm putting it on my list of questions right now.) I have a new Relpax prescription waiting for me at my pharmacy that I will also be trying next week.

It's nice to have some relief tonight, after a particularly tough week of depression and severe pain. I don't know how long it will last. Last time I only got about 8 hours, but even that was a nice break. I'll be seeing my new specialist in about a month, which, all things considered, isn't too far off.

That's all for now. Here's hoping for a low-pain weekend.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

well, hello

I thought it was time I joined the blogging world, so hello, blogging world!

A brief introduction. I'm a 24-year-old chronic migraine sufferer. I've had migraines as far back as I can remember, but I wasn't diagnosed until I was 20. Before that, I thought I what I had were "sinus headaches", but I was mistaken.

I'm going through a particularly bad migraine cycle right now, which has been going on almost two years. Since last November, I've had constant pain 24/7, despite the effort of several doctors whom I've either fired or who have referred me elsewhere. I will be seeing a new headache specialist (neurologist #4) next month.

I do my best to cope with the constant pain, and would be lost without my DBF and fuzzy Madcat. I would be hopeless without the wonderful support and information on the MyMigraineConnection forums.

A brief explanation about migraine. Migraine is a genetic neurological disease, and is not just a headache. About 36 million Americans suffer from migraine, more than those who suffer from asthma, diabetes and coronary heart disease combined. Yet migraine remains underdiagnosed and undertreated. I'm fortunate that I have a diagnosis and some form of treatment, even though the treatment hasn't put so much as a dent in the pain.

Welcome again to my fledgling blog. Glad to have you here!