The Impact of concussion on teens with headache

There is much evidence and information in the literature about the general effect of concussion on kids and teens.  Most pediatric practices and schools use specific protocols for concussion recovery and these plans generally work well. Unfortunately, for patients with headache, the story of recovery can be quite different.  In this post, I would like to discuss the impact of concussion/mild head trauma on patients with a headache history.

A concussion happens when there is an impact injury to the skull that mildly damages the brain tissue, causing bruising and swelling. Immediate symptoms of a concussion can include a loss of consciousness, confusion, amnesia, nausea, vomiting, headache or dizziness. Some signs of a concussion may not appear for several hours after the injury and may persist for several days or weeks.

Post-concussion symptoms are caused by both physiologic and psychological factors from the effect of brain trauma. Physically, symptoms can be caused by structural damage to the brain or disruption of the neurological messaging system, triggered by impact. Psychological factors can be involved, since many of the symptoms, including headache, dizziness and sleep disruption, can also be attributed to depression, anxiety or PTSD.

Healthy teens generally recover from their concussions within a reasonable amount of time, especially if they follow the usual post-concussion guidelines, instituting cognitive and physical rest for a period of time. Depending on the severity of the injury, recovery can be complete within 3-4 weeks, with a gradual return to function.

Unfortunately, teens with a headache history (migraine, tension-type, new daily persistent headache) have a much more difficult time with their recovery. In fact, migraine is a risk factor for prolonged concussion recovery. Even when the head blow is quite mild, kids with headache tend to be much more symptomatic, diagnosed with a concussion. Whether it is a true ‘concussion’ or not, these patients have significant symptoms consistent with concussion. And they are much more at risk for developing post-concussion syndrome.

Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) is a condition in which the symptoms of a concussion persist for weeks, months or years. Symptoms of PCS include:

  • Headache: recurrent or constant mild to severe headache pain
  • Sleep: disruption, insomnia, daytime fatigue.
  • Mood: anxiety, irritability, depression, confusion
  • Sensory Alterations: blurred or double vision, slurred speech, altered sense of smell or taste, tinnitus or hearing loss, photophobia and phonophobia
  • GI complaints: nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite
  • Balance issues: unsteadiness, lightheadedness, dizziness or vertigo
  • Cognition: forgetfulness, misplacing common items, difficulty concentration and focus, comprehension and reading

After concussion, migraineurs tend to have more frequent and severe migraine episodes. The migraines become more difficult to treat with their usual rescue medications. For patients with TTH, there can also be more severe symptoms, often related to muscle spasms and tightness, especially if there was a whiplash injury. For NDPH patients, their overall baseline headache pain is increased with more frequent headache spikes and other symptoms.

Overall, having a mild head trauma can cause considerable symptoms and even the development of disability in your usually well-functioning teenager with headaches. For primary care providers, awareness of the likelihood of prolonged recovery for these patients is key.  Realistic expectations can be set with the patient and family. PCPs can assist in obtaining accommodations for school and academic demands, as well as supportive therapies to foster recovery. Emotional support is very important, as the results of these types of unexpected injuries can really test the resilience of the any family unit.

It’s important to remember that these types of injuries are not just sports-related.  One of the most prolonged and symptomatic PCS patient in my practice was a teenage girl with migraine who slipped and hit her head on the side of a bathroom sink. She was out of school for months and suffered greatly from this injury, requiring a lot of support and intervention to get back to functioning.  And then she fell and hit her head on the ice the following winter! She made a full recovery but….. oh my goodness.

In my next post, I will talk about care and treatment of the patient with headache and concussion.

 

 

The challenge of taking care of patients with NDPH

I have recently reviewed the basics of New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH) so providers in the community can have a better understanding of this primary headache.  It is often misdiagnosed, mainly due to unfamiliarity.  And now that you have a better understanding, you will be able to recognize it more readily.  One of the most frustrating things for the families is the lack of a firm diagnosis.  Many medications are tried and failed, some appropriate and some inappropriate.  They often express relief after a headache program evaluation, when the providers can explain what is really going on with their child.  The diagnosis is not good news, but uncertainty is often worse.

So what exactly can you do to help a patient with NDPH? Since I know that few medications are useful, I do not routinely recommend one.  I take my cues from the parents and patient, and sometimes they have different opinions.  Oftentimes, the parents are eager to try another med, anything to get this better.  But the teens I deal with really are not interested in doing another medication that ‘will not help me and just make me feel bad’. I generally agree with them.  They are usually interested in participating in research, anything to better understand the NDPH.

In the past 1-2 years, I have been recommending that they try the short-duration lidocaine infusion. The way I look at it, it’s a short intervention that is either going to help or not. But it will not make them worse, which makes it a big plus. And if it is helpful in reducing their symptoms other than headache, that has the potential for improving function and avoiding disability.

Apart from these kinds of initiatives, I just focus on the basics.  That means healthy headache hygiene, which includes adequate hydration, good anti-inflammatory diet, moderate but frequent exercise, and a good night’s sleep.  I reviewed these areas in previous posts (All about the migraine parts 2 & 3). This is even more important for the NDPH patient and most of them are challenged in one or more areas.  They are frequently my patients who don’t drink enough, eat a beige diet, and are persistently nauseous, don’t exercise at all, and have a hard time with sleep. It can be overwhelming to have to tackle many lifestyle issues, so we focus on one at a time, baby steps to improvement.

I like to see them in follow up every 3-4 months to keep them on track. Frequent reminders about any positive progress are also helpful.  When they are discouraged, I refer back to my notes from previous visits, citing an improvement in pain scores or general functioning that I documented 1 year before.  When you are in the weeds with this kind of chronic pain problem, you tend to not notice when things get better incrementally. It can give them encouragement to continue on the path to wellness.

A huge aspect of dealing with teens with NDPH is learning how to cope and manage their chronic pain and stress. I start with recommending counseling with CBT to help them learn pain coping skills. They can be resistant but I can be persistent.   (See previous post: stress and migraine).  There is usually an anxiety overlay in these patients- whether it was there before the headache or developed as a result of having chronic headache.  We can consider starting an SSRI as a way to manage anxiety and also to help with the headache.  I will explain the nervous system pathways for pain and anxiety are right next to each other, and that treating anxiety could very well help the headache.  This is almost always a helpful approach.  It doesn’t ‘cure’ the headache, but promote better coping ability which leads to better functioning, which can lead to NDPH improvement.

I have also tried occipital nerve and trigger point injections in those patients whose headache seems more focal or located in the occipital area. This has the possibility of improving the headache.  I ask that they come for 2 procedures before deciding it does not help. I would say it helps reduce the pain level in about 50% of my patients with NDPH (my guestimate). This is another intervention that could help, and generally does not make the headache worse in the long run.

Understanding and treating NDPH is a work in progress. Redirecting from ineffective and often invasive measures, following patients closely with an open mind and constant support, and emphasizing non-pharmacologic approaches  remain the standard of care until, hopefully, new research brings new insight.

More about NDPH

Let’s talk today about the story of NDPH, a primary headache not well understood or recognized, a zebra among headaches. The more we know about it, the more it is recognized.  But that does not make it any easier to deal with as a provider or a patient.

The first documented description of NDPH was in 1986, by Dr. Walter Vanast, a neurologist in Canada. He described it as a benign syndrome that resolved regardless of treatment in 73-86% in 3-24 months. In a recent interview with Dr. Vanast in Headache journal, he describes his interest and search for the cause of this headache. He thought it was an auto‐immune disorder with a persistent viral trigger, such as EBV. And this description is still in use today, though in my opinion ‘benign’ is not the word I would use.

About half of patients with NDPH have had a febrile viral illness near the onset. Others develop it after a minor head injury, or pseudotumor or idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). Others seem to have no known reason for this headache to develop. There continues to be very little known about the pathophysiology of NDPH.  A recent paper stated that it might be related to persistent central nervous system inflammation or related to cervical hypermobility. We really don’t know.

The incidence in adult of chronic daily headache is 4%; the incidence of these adult patients having NDPH is between 1-10%, so not that many. But in children and teens, the incidence is much higher: 20-40% of pediatric chronic daily headache patients. Way more kids and teens than adults have NDPH. And it is probably underreported and under recognized.

There are several different patterns of headache associated with NDPH.

  • The first type is mild and self-limiting, resolving without therapy.
  • The second type is moderate, with a constant headache that waxes and wanes over time. Good days are more like tension-type headaches and bad days are more like migraine.
  • The third type is a continuous severe headache, with disabling high-level pain all day every day.

We don’t see many patients with the first type, with lower level headaches that just end up going away. Most commonly we see the second type, kids with constant all day every day headache, pain rated 5-6/10NRS on average with a range of 3-9/10NRS. On lower pain days, they might have mild nausea, mild dizziness, mild mental fogginess and light sensitivity along with headache. On higher pain days, all of their symptoms are severe and migrainous; pain is 8-9/10NRS, and they are non-functional. Their pain and symptoms are disabling; change in pain level is influenced by activity, weather patterns, stress and cognitive effort.  Fortunately, while we do see the completely refractory third type, they are not as common– but so difficult.

So it is hard enough to have a constant headache, no headache-free time. But add to that is the realization that most common treatments and even the most aggressive treatments are ineffective against this headache. Current daily medications do not alleviate their pain and the patients just experience all the side effects.

Usually by the time the patient arrives at our specialty headache program, they have already tried at least 1 or more daily medications without success. The families might like to try more medication, so we would pick another of the common ones. The choice is often based on what other symptoms are most bothersome.

  • Unable to sleep? Choose amitriptyline or gabapentin.
  • Worried about weight gain? Choose topiramate.
  • Don’t want any mental clouding? Try propranolol.
  • Super dizzy? Try verapamil.
  • Persistent nausea? Add hydroxyzine at bedtime.
  • Very tight neck and upper back muscle? Choose tizanidine.
  • Don’t want medications? Try a supplement- magnesium or riboflavin.
  • All else fails? Try occipital nerve and trigger point injections.

You might find that something helps other symptoms, even when it does nothing to the headache. I have had great results with using hydroxyzine at bedtime for patients with persistent nausea. Having less nausea may make the difference between going to school or staying home…. again.

It is just a matter of time before the families (really the patients) decide that they do not want to try any further medication, at least daily medication. Most tell me that they feel better off the meds.

Things you might try for a migraineur in status migrainosis such as going to the ED or being admitted for DHE are not usually helpful. Often the patients end up more frustrated, faced with another ineffective intervention.

As far as rescue medications, again you try the basics- NSAIDS, antiemetics, caffeine. Most important is to stress that analgesia should only be used for severe headache and no more than 3 days/week to avoid overuse headache. As you can imagine, overuse is tempting, kids just want to feel better.  But I stress that too much analgesia will just make them feel worse, and in the end, the medications will stop working. I encourage being strategic with analgesia. Save it for when you might really need it, such as before SAT exams or before a big sports game or concert.  This is generally effective in preventing overuse.

What is really important is for the families and patients to know that you are all in this together. Accepting where they are and working with them. Offering hope but being realistic.

I will have more to say about some research initiatives and novel approaches to NDPH in the next post.

Tension-type headache strategies

I have reviewed factors contributing to tension-type headaches, as well as some preventive strategies.  In this post I will cover appropriate rescue medications, and talk about treatment for underlying anxiety, which often needs to be addressed for kids with tension-type headaches.

Analgesia is a key part of a rescue strategy for TTH. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the mainstay of headache analgesia. The side effects are GI, such as gastric distress, nausea, ulcer, hematologic, such as bleeding disorder or platelet dysfunction, or related to allergic reaction.  Any of the NSAIDS can be effective in treating a tension-type headache.  Treating a TTH  as soon as possible is the key to success.  I talked about this class of medications more in depth in the blog post “migraine medications to the rescue…analgesia”.  Ibuprofen and naproxen are the most commonly used NSAIDS and are effective for those who can take them.  Some people will also use diclofenac, sulindac and even ketorolac.

For patients who cannot take NSAIDS, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is useful and usually well tolerated, with adult dosing for teens of 650-1000mg q4-6h, weight- appropriate dosing for younger kids. There are many formulations- suspension, chewable tabs, dissolve tabs, regular tablets and extra strength tablets.

Aspirin can also be used, but should be used in a limited fashion due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.  Another Excedrin product, Excedrin Tension Headache, similar to Excedrin migraine, but does not contain aspirin can be used as well.  Each coated tablet contains 500 mg of acetaminophen and 65mg of caffeine. Of course you wouldn’t want to use this in the evening.

For all analgesia, patients should not take them for more than 2-3 days/week to avoid medication overuse headaches.

Other medications: there are a few other medications that can be used for treating other symptoms associated with tension-type headaches. These would include anti-emetics like ondansetron for nausea or an antihistamine, like Benadryl or hydroxyzine, for dizziness. A muscle relaxant could also be a rescue medication, such as tizanidine, but quite apt to make them sleepy.

Complementary rescue strategies:  In addition to the medications we have talked about, there are a number of complementary interventions that can really help resolve a tension-type headache.  In addition, reiki, acupuncture and other complementary therapies can certainly play a role in reducing stress and anxiety, which often trigger tension-type headaches. For some patients, doing these strategies can treat a TTH, and they do not need to take any medication.

  • Aromatherapy: using an essential oil, such as peppermint, lavender, or ginger used topically, gently massaged on the temples or behind the ears
  • Ice/cold (or heat) applied to the forehead or the neck
  • Gentle massage to the neck and occiput or frontal/temples
  • Anything that activates the relaxation response, such as a CBT or biofeedback exercise, or breathing technique, using a relaxation/meditation app, soothing music. My favorite is the Insight Timer app, so many options and free.

Stress and anxiety are frequent triggers of tension-type or stress headaches. Many of us carry our cares and worries in our neck and shoulders. During stressful times, the trapezius and paracervical muscles (which encompass our head) tense up around our heads, squeezing the occipital nerve in particular bilaterally, and triggering headache.  Relieving the pain involves getting these muscles to relax. I refer you to my blog post “stress and migraines” for more information about this and appropriate strategies.

When I have a patient who demonstrates or reports having significant anxiety, I know that this needs to be addressed in order for the teen to start having less frequent TTH. This is not always a welcome message, especially when I encourage them to get some professional help. It is not always easy to bring up, but so necessary.  There are many ways to intervene, including medications, but having a good counselor to talk to and learn CBT skills from is the best intervention, from my point of view. Kids and teens actually do very well with CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy), especially if they do their ‘homework’ and if there is buy-in and support from the family.

Unfortunately, there can be significant barriers to getting into counseling, including lack of local providers, insurance barriers, time constraints and general lack of commitment to the process.  I think finding an appropriate therapist (psychologist, LICSW) is the biggest hurdle.  The PCP can help by knowing the network of child psychology providers in the area. The website, www.psychologytoday.com, has a search feature which can help with that; just enter the zip code, and narrow the search (child/teen, CBT), and a list of local providers comes up.  I have found this to be a very valuable resource, especially when I see patients who are not from my area. I also refer families to their insurance carrier, to find providers who are in network.  I encourage families to understand that finding a therapist is a process, which may involve many phone calls and leaving messages. It can be quite frustrating.

Concerning medications, I have an informal rule that I will not start an anxiolytic medication unless there is counseling set up or actively being pursued.  I think it is important to send the message that there is work to be done to manage anxiety, and the more work the patient is willing to do, the less medication (and side effects) is needed.  Also SSRI/SNRI medications are not without risk, including the black box warning of suicidality in the young and teenage population.

There are definitely times when both counseling and medication is needed, but in my opinion, the therapy is most important. Why? Because therapy/CBT can help our young patients develop the skills and resilience to face the challenges of life. Kids and teens need to develop their inner resources to deal with their quickly changing environments, without becoming overwhelmed or despondent, or falling into other unhealthy coping strategies, such as addiction. As providers, we owe it to them to steer in the right direction as best we can, to speak up when we think psychological help is needed, and to support our families in their healing journeys.

Off the soapbox now……………

My next posts will be about another primary headache, new daily persistent headache (NDPH), a very challenging headache diagnosis. Stay tuned………

 

 

 

Tension-type headache treatments

So you have diagnosed your teenaged patient with tension-type headaches, what are the next steps to prevent and treat them? The same questions apply to TTH as to migraine: Does this patient need a preventive or daily medication? What is the rescue plan? And even more importantly, what about the lifestyle factors that can trigger TTH?

Again, deciding on a preventive or daily medication depends on how much impact the TTHs are having on your teen patient’s life. Anything more than once per week deserves this conversation. And your choices for medication can be different than for migraine. When you think about the main causes for TTH, you think about muscular tension which can lead to muscle spasm and occipital neuralgia, and stress and anxiety.

For muscle tightness and/or spasm:  Oftentimes patient with TTH will awaken with a stiff neck and back or headache. Muscle relaxants given at bedtime can reduce neck tightness overnight, leading to less tension overall.  The most typical muscle relaxant we use is tizanidine (Zanaflex), an alpha2-adrenergic agonist, used for muscle spasticity. Usual dosage is 2-4 mg at bedtime. Main side effects are drowsiness, dry mouth, and weakness. It is used with caution for patient with impaired renal function and not advised for patients with impaired hepatic function.  If your patient has difficulty with sleep, tizanidine can also help with this. Cyclobenzaprine (Flexiril) is also a musculoskeletal relaxant, with a similar side effect profile and precautions. This medication is not recommended to be used for more than 2-3 weeks, and we do not generally use it.  Another option is diazepam (Valium), a benzodiazepine, but we almost never use it due to the risk of dependence and CNS depression. It is not a good choice.

What else can be done besides medications for tight muscles in the neck and upper back? The many different options of body work, such as massage, cranial sacral massage, chiropractic, yoga and Physical Therapy are very useful. I especially like PT, as there is a component and need for self-care required.  Sending your patient for PT for head and neck stretching and strengthening is a very useful therapeutic option.  PT is usually easy to find locally, though does require co-pay every time you go.  The patient needs to do their home exercise program as well for it to be effective.

A few years ago I recognized that for some families, doing PT was difficult- either because of the co-pay or the time commitment/hours of operation of the PT center. It just wasn’t happening and it needed to. With my yoga teacher, I developed a home head and neck stretching program to supplement or replace PT (for patients who were not going anyway).  I taught the exercises in the office, gave the family written instructions and a firm ball to use.  We collected data in follow up and the results were great.  We surveyed 43 patients, 36 of whom did the exercises at least once/week or more.  Results revealed that 78% had reduced muscle tension, 22% had reduced headache and 30% just felt better.  The more the kids actually did the exercises, the more benefit they reported.   I demonstrate the exercises,  give out instructions and balls regularly for those who would benefit, and for those who actually do the exercises, it is very helpful. The balls we used are called ‘Pinky’ balls, firm like a lacrosse ball, inexpensive, and can be found easily.  Here’s a link to the instructions:  Pinky ball Head and Neck exercises

For TTH with occipital neuralgia: Of all the previously discussed medications useful for headache, Gabapentin (Neurontin) is the one I use most often.  It is an anticonvulsant and is quite effective in dealing with neuropathic pain anywhere in the body. So it makes sense that it would help with occipital neuralgia. Gabapentin does cause sedation and mental clouding, may lead to weight gain. Dosing is at bedtime to start, though depending on toleration, it can be given up to TID. At most I will use BID dosing (bigger dose at bedtime), as that midday dose is often missed. It comes in capsule form, smallest dosing is 100mg, though it does come as a liquid, helpful for younger children. Pregabalin (Lyrica) can be used as well, but there is abuse potential so it is controlled substance. Generally the insurance companies require failure with gabapentin before approving Lyrica. It can be hard to obtain and I do not use it often.

In a specialty headache or pain program, there is the option of occipital nerve and trigger point injections, done with local anesthetic (lidocaine and bupivacaine +/- steroids). IN TTH, the occipital nerve may be inflamed. Trigger points (areas within muscles that are very irritable) will contribute to tension-type headaches and myofascial pain.  The areas around the greater occipital nerve, as well as any trigger points in the upper cervical, trapezius muscles are infiltrated with local anesthetic.  Initially, patients feel ‘heavy-headed’ or numb, which passes by the next day or so.  The anesthetic medication blocks pain receptors within the nerves surrounding the muscle, thus reducing the pain signals sent to the brain.  Your patient may feel immediate relief of pain, and then (hopefully) a reduction in neuralgia and headache.   This procedure is done in a series of 3, spaced 4-8 weeks apart.  I usually encourage them to try it at least twice to evaluate whether it is helpful. Some patients have significant improvement with this procedure; some have no benefit at all.  It is generally well tolerated.

I am actually amazed at how well the teens do with this procedure. They are in my office with a parent, we do a breathing exercise throughout the procedure, and only do as many injections as they can tolerate. Even my most needle-phobic kids can do it, mainly because they cannot see what I am doing and are distracted by the breathing exercise. After we complete the injections, I insist they go to the ‘spa room’, lay down on our Biomat (like a large heating pad) in dim lighting for 15-20 minutes with relaxing ambient sounds and aromatherapy, and drink a Gatorade. Many fall asleep and are very relaxed when they leave. I know we are very lucky to be able to offer this kind of experience.  I think it actually increases the therapeutic benefit of the procedure.

In my next post, I’ll talk about appropriate rescue medications and treatment for underlying anxiety, which often needs to be addressed for kids with tension-type headaches.

Migraine case study, part 3

In this case study we’ll look at a fairly straightforward patient, with some twists and turns and decision points along the way.

Case Study: Patty is currently an 18 year-old teenage girl with a history of migraine headaches since age 9. You have been seeing her for years, and this is her story.  At the time of diagnosis, her migraines were infrequent (monthly at most), easy managed with a dose of ibuprofen and a nap. She was on no daily medications, and did a good job with her healthy headache hygiene. She is otherwise healthy except for exercise-induced asthma, just uses an inhaler as needed. She lives at home with her parents, 2 younger brothers, and several pets.  There is a strong family history of migraine

Around ages 11-12, things started to change, puberty was arriving. During this time her migraines were a bit more frequent, still manageable. Once her menses started, things really took off. Migraine frequency changed from monthly to weekly, and around her menses, they were more intense. She started to notice some aura-like symptoms, such as a black spot in her line of vision 30 minutes before the migraine started (50% of the time). She would also get more moody than usual 1 day before a migraine. She was also more symptomatic, having pain on average at 6-7/10NRS, accompanied by nausea with vomiting and lightheadedness, photophobia and phonophobia, fatigue, and that black visual spot. Ibuprofen was no longer effective and she often threw it up. Sleep was the only thing that helped, and the migraine lasted for several hours.  For lifestyle, she does sleep well at night, and eats a selective diet but no meal skipping.  Hydration is fair; she weighs 45kg and is drinking only 20oz/day and not drinking at school.  She is physically active with soccer and softball.

Decision point: Patty has reached puberty and her migraine headaches have become more frequent and symptomatic.  You decide that it is time to change her rescue plan, and consider a daily medication or at least a supplement.  The family would prefer not to start a medication, so you give them the option of starting daily magnesium 400mg daily as supplement. You also ask that she do a better job with hydration, at least 50 oz/day, and to bring water to school (and drink it).  You also reinforce her already healthy habits.  For rescue, you introduce a triptan, rizatriptan 5mg ODT (dissolving tab) to be taken when she notices her black spot before the migraine hits.  You also provide ondansetron 4mg ODT for her nausea, to be followed by naproxen 375mg.  She may take just the ondansetron and naproxen if no aura or the migraine is already started.  Since her migraines are just weekly, it is unlikely she will overuse medication but you do remind them that migraine analgesia should not be used more then 2-3 days/week. You ask them to return for a follow up appointment in 2 months to see how she is doing.

Follow up appointment visit: Patty is doing much better with her hydration, taking magnesium every day, and her rescue plan is working pretty well.  If she can take the rizatriptan quickly, many times she is able to abort her migraines.  And best of all, her migraines have reduced to 1-2 times/month; usually one of these times is around her menses.

Fast forward 2 years: Patty is here for her yearly check-up, age 14, in the summer before she starts high school. She is doing fairly well though her migraines are more frequent these days, back to once/week.  Her rescue medications are working well.  She has been using the Migraine Buddy app and tracking her headaches, has discovered that stress, caffeine and her menses are the biggest triggers.  She still takes magnesium but as not regularly, has backtracked a bit on hydration and has stopped playing sports.  She is also not sleeping well due to a busy mind, and her diet is slightly more adventurous, no meal skipping. She is particularly worried today about her migraines and starting high school, getting stressed out about it.  The family is thinking it might be a good idea to start a daily medication for migraine prevention.  Her health continues good, no recent illnesses or asthma flares.  Her weight is healthy, at 55kg.

Decision point: You agree with the family about trying a daily medication.  You consider your choices: cyproheptadine is not a good choice as she is beyond puberty and it will most likely cause too much weight gain; amitriptyline might be a good choice, might help with the anxiety  and sleep;  topiramate could also be chosen; Propranolol is not appropriate due to her asthma.  You choose amitriptyline 10mg at bedtime, may increase to 20mg after 1 month, and you check an EKG (normal).  You advise about side effects- sleepiness, mental clouding. She can continue magnesium if desired or try riboflavin B2 instead.  Lifestyle needs to be addressed and again you talk about hydration (60oz/day), sleep hygiene (put away that phone before bed), and getting more physical activity, since she is not doing sports now.  You also explore with the family ways to deal with stress, such as using a meditation app or exercise, seeing a counselor for CBT.  Patty is not really interested in counseling but she might try the Insight Timer app that you showed her how to use today. You ask them to return for a follow up appointment in 3 months to see how she is doing.

Follow up appointment visit: Patty is tolerating the amitriptyline at 20mg, no side effects and sleeping better.  She is having fewer migraine headaches back to twice/month. She did start hydrating better and now that school has restarted, she is in the habit of bringing a water bottle to school, empty when she gets home.  She is still not very active- none of her friends are active and she just wants to hang out with them.  The family does enforce better sleep hygiene with a set bedtime and phone out of her room at night. She is not in counseling and tried to do relaxation exercises but ‘found it a little to woo-woo’ for her liking.  Stress has not really been addressed, though the family is more aware of it now.  They are satisfied with her progress.

Fast forward, age 15, urgent care visit:  It’s winter and there’s a nasty GI virus going through the school, and Patty has gotten it. Patty has had a hard time, has been unable to tolerate fluids, vomiting and having diarrhea for the past 2 days.  And she just got her menses.  A perfect storm.  You see her in urgent care and she’s pale and miserable, and has a migraine on top of it all. She’s had a severe 9/10NRS headache for the past 12 hours, and is unable to take her rescue medications, take her daily amitriptyline or hydrate.

Decision point:  This is clearly not going to get better without intervention.  Fortunately, in your facility’s urgent care, patients can receive IV fluids and medications; otherwise you would need to send her to the local ED. An IV is started and she is given 500cc of saline to rehydrate to start.  Then, she receives a dose of IV ondansetron 4mg, and ketorolac 30mg, and perhaps Compazine 5mg.  Patty falls asleep and awakens in an hour feeling better, though still with a milder headache. You repeat the IV fluids and she is improved.  The family is comfortable taking her home.   You encourage them to continue hydration, electrolyte-rich fluids and antiemetics, and rest. In 1-2 days, all is well.

Fast forward, age 18, routine visit in December: Patty is doing well, in her senior year of high school, has gotten into her #1 choice for college. Her general health has been good, and apart from that 1 episode requiring urgent care, her migraine headaches have been manageable.  She remains on amitriptyline 25 mg nightly, and is having 2 migraines per month.  She does have a healthy lifestyle, doing well with hydration and reports that she has ‘finally learned that I have to drink a lot to prevent migraine’.  She enjoys being outdoors and hiking and kayaking now, and enjoys feeling physically strong and able.  She has a passion for the environment and wants to make a difference in the world through her environmental work in the future. She wants to talk about her menstrual migraines and also about birth control. She has always had bad periods with lots of cramps, and gets a very bad migraine on day #1.  She did some research (Dr. Google) and found out that some people with menstrual migraines and bad periods do better if they are on birth control.  Plus she has a new boyfriend, and has some other concerns as well. She continues to experience her aura of black spots, almost every migraine, and sometimes loses vision in one eye.  Rizatriptan is not as effective as it used to be, especially around her menses.

Decision point: This is a tricky situation, as women with migraine with aura have to be very careful with birth control choices. The general rule is to avoid estrogen-containing OCP, to avoid increased risk of stroke, at least as a start (see article in resources). Patty is correct that being on an OCP can help with dysmenorrhea and menstrual migraine.  You might suggest a progestin-only product, or refer her to a gynecologist.  Progestin-only OCP tend to be a little challenging as they often need to be taken at a consistent time, but there are other options as well such as depo-provera or progestin-only implant. One thing you can do today is switch her from rizatriptan to frovatriptan, the triptan that was specially developed for use with menstrual migraine.  Patty states she would be happy if her menstrual migraines were better; she might even want to stop taking amitriptyline. You and Patty decide that she will see a gynecologist about her birth control.  Once she is on a stable regimen, she can decide about stopping amitriptyline.  You ask her to consider waiting until summer break to do this, as she always has less migraine then and will have less stress.  She agrees and will come for a follow up during the summer.

So there you have it, an example of a typical migraineur from childhood through adolescence. The issues that present themselves here can all be well managed in the primary care setting. Most migraineurs end up in the ED at times, especially during times of illness and it may be unavoidable. These ED visits should not be considered failures. Rather they can be opportunities to fine tune rescue plans or reinforce a healthy lifestyle.   I always tell my patients that they will always be a migraineur, but their migraine headaches will change over their lifespan, for better and worse. Patients with migraine need education and empowerment to keep up with their self-care, and a caring provider to assist them.

 

Migraine case studies, part 2

Here are the case studies with your possible interventions.

Case Study #1:  Sally is an 8 year-old little girl who you have known since birth. She’s happy and friendly, loves to play soccer and school, especially math. She met all of her developmental milestones, though you do remember that she did have colic as an infant.  Over the years her parents have heard her complain at times about having a headache but not often, usually associated with a long busy day or not getting enough sleep. There are many people with headaches in the family, so her complaints did not really concern her parents.  They would occasionally give her a dose of Tylenol with resolution of the headache.  Recently, Sally has been more vocal about her headaches, crying at times, complaining of nausea and light sensitivity with her headaches.  Her mother has brought her in today to talk about this.

Your visit: Sally is her usual happy self, but her mother is a bit concerned.  They report that for the past 3-4 months, Sally is having headaches about 1-2 times/month, with head pain rated 6-8/10 FACES scale, and accompanied by some nausea but no vomiting and light sensitivity.  At times the headaches are preceded by eating a chocolate, occur on a hot day when Sally may not have had enough to drink or did not have enough sleep. She does not have any aura or prodrome symptoms, but her mother notices that she seems droopy and pale before and during the headache. Sally usually receives a dose of Tylenol and a drink, and then takes a nap for a few hours, which resolves the headache. You confirm that Sally has been well in the past few months, no illnesses or head trauma, and confirm the family history of migraine headache.  There is nothing concerning on her physical exam.

Your intervention: You propose that these headaches are most likely migraine, based on the symptoms, history and family history. As her migraines are infrequent, the focus of your intervention is going to be on lifestyle factors and rescue methods and medications.

You talk with the family about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep (10 hours for kids her age), lots of healthy exercise and no meal skipping. Sally weighs 24kg, so her daily hydration goal is 20-25 ounces (at least 1oz/kg/day or half their body weight in pounds), more in the hot weather and with exercise.  You give them information about the migraine elimination diet and any office materials you have about migraine headache. Sadly, she may have to eliminate or at least limit the amount of chocolate she eats, and perhaps make other adjustments, such as keeping to a regular sleep schedule even on weekends and limit sleepovers.

You advise using ibuprofen 200mg (1 adult, 2 chewable tabs or liquid) at the start of the migraine, hydrating with water or electrolyte-rich drink (Gatorade, Smart water, etc.) and then taking a nap for rescue. She can also try using an ice pack on her head, keeping her room dark, quiet and cool.  Encourage them to keep a headache diary so that they can give you good data at their next appointment in several months as follow up. Offer reassurance and support that you will work as a team to manage her migraine headaches.

Case Study #2: Charlie is a 10 year-old boy, known to you for a few years. He is generally healthy, met all his milestones appropriately, and is active playing a variety of sports. He attends school regularly, no learning issues, and has lots of friends.  Lately he has been complaining of abdominal pain, with and without nausea, and not associated with food or diarrhea or constipation.  It has been happening at school and he has had to be dismissed home multiple times in the past several weeks.  The family is puzzled, as the pain is not consistently triggered by anything they can think of, no vomiting or diarrhea.  They are wondering if there is something going on at school, if the pain is real and what is causing it.

Your visit: Charlie is here with his mother and father today, and they all look worried.  Charlie reports that ‘out of the blue’ he starts feeling sick to his stomach, and then he gets really bad belly pain, ‘right in the middle’. This has been happening several times/week now for the past month, usually at school or in the evening.  Sometimes he gets the pain without feeling nauseous.  The pain is so bad that he wants to go home, and he rates it between 8-20/10 on the pain numeric rating scale.  They have noticed that he becomes very pale with dark circles under his eyes with the belly pain, gets clammy and tired, just wants to sleep.  After he naps for 1-2 hours, the pain goes away, but he does feel tired and sleepy afterwards. There does not seem to be anything that triggers the pain and there are no other signs of illness, no diarrhea, or headache. He has regular soft bowel movements every day, no soiling or constipation.  When he does not have pain, he feels just fine, playful and happy.  They do notice that sometimes the pain happens after a very long day of activity, when he has not had enough to drink, or after they eat Chinese food.  They have not tried any OTC medications, thinking it would make him throw up, which he really hates.  There is no history of migraine in the family that they know of. But Charlie’s father remembers that his big brother used to get really bad stomach pain when he was a kid, and he outgrew it as a teenager. There is nothing concerning on his physical exam, his abdomen is soft and non-tender in all quadrants.

Your intervention: You approach this from a GI perspective, first exploring sources of GI pain, checking an XRAY for constipation and other abnormalities, such as intussusception, checking a stool sample, checking labs for celiac, etc.  When it all comes back negative, you propose that these symptoms are consistent with a migraine variant, called abdominal migraine, something particular to children. This diagnosis is supported by his overall wellness, the episodic frequency and his symptoms while having pain, and the family history (uncle with similar presentation).  As this migraine is rather frequent, you consider a daily medication, as well as lifestyle factors and rescue methods and medications. 

As with the previous case study, lifestyle is key in preventing abdominal migraine; sleep, diet, hydration and exercise can help limit the migraine episodes. The family has already noticed some possible triggers, and is advised to avoid Chinese food (or at least MSG) and to start reading processed food labels for it. Information about the migraine elimination diet and office materials about migraine is helpful. There may need to be lifestyle adjustments, enforcing a regular sleep schedule, making sure Charlie brings water to school every day to meet his daily hydration goal (34kg=30-40oz), extra with sports.

Lifestyle measures may be all he needs to decrease the abdominal migraine frequency. But if not, an appropriate daily medication to try would be cyproheptadine 2-4mg at bedtime. This works quite well in pre-pubertal children, though you have to be sure to mention the side effects of increased appetite, sleepiness and at times, irritability.  (If he is grumpy with diphenhydramine, I might not choose it, perhaps choosing amitriptyline instead.)

For rescue, if Charlie is very nauseous, he can take ondansetron 4mg dissolving tabs ODT first. Then he can use ibuprofen 200-300mg (1 1/2 adult or 3 chewable tabs), OTC Aleve 220mg or prescription naproxen 250mg at the start of the migraine. He should hydrate with water or electrolyte-rich drink and then taking a nap for rescue, resting in a dark, quiet and cool room. The family can keep a migraine diary so that they can give you good data at their next appointment in several months as follow up. One thing about abdominal migraine is that they are changeable. As time goes on, he may very well transition from just abdominal pain to a combination of abdominal and head pain. As children proceed through puberty into later teenage years, abdominal migraine either just goes away completely, or transforms into migraine headache. As he is a male, his migraine may just disappear at the end of puberty, similar to his uncle.

Case Study #3: Lucy is a 13 year-old tween, who you have just met this past year.  The family had moved from out of state and Lucy has had a hard time in adjusting to her new school, but she has made a few friends. She is a good student, and is active in drama club and music, not into sports. According to her family, she has always been sensitive to her environment; bright lights, loud noise and certain smells have always bothered her.  She tends to get lightheaded when she stands up quickly, and is very bothered by her sweaty hands and feet.  She is generally healthy, but does have some GERD symptoms and constipation. Her diet could be better, very selective and often complains of mild nausea in the morning.  She has always been a terrible sleeper, since infancy.  She started having her menses 6 months ago. She has started complaining of severe headaches for the past several months and they are here to see you about it.

Your visit: Lucy is here with her mother today. She reports that she has been getting really bad headaches for the past several months. They started out just once in a while and now she has headaches every week, sometimes more than 1, and usually after school.  Pain is rated 6-9/10NRS on average and she gets these weird symptoms right before the headache comes (squiggly black lines in her vision).  The headache is always on the L side- temple and behind her eye, and she feels nauseous, dizzy and really tired.  Lights and noise bother her more than usual, and the smell of some foods makes it worse.  She goes into her room, into the darkness and tries to go to sleep.  She usually takes Tylenol or ibuprofen which helps a bit, but needs to go to sleep for a few hours to feel better. When she wakes up, she might still have a mild headache but feels lousy, back to normal the next day.   She has not been sick lately, and has been feeling well, except for the headaches. The only other thing is that her periods are also really painful, lots of cramps, and this makes her miserable.  In reviewing her family history, her mother does report members of her family who have migraine and thinks Lucy has migraine too.  Lucy is not very physically active, sleeps poorly, and does not like to hydrate, especially at school (the bathroom is gross!).  Her physical exam reveals her to be neurologically intact, though there is evidence of some autonomic symptoms, such as hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet, mild hand tremor, sensitivity in the distribution of the nuclear caudalis (trigeminal sensitivity) and GI issues.

Your interventions: You propose that these headaches are most likely migraine with aura, based on the symptoms, history and family history. She also is neurologically sensitive, with some autonomic nervous system dysfunction. Her case is bit more complex, more moving parts and will require a multidisciplinary approach, including daily and rescue medications, and lifestyle improvement.

Early adolescence is a time of great upheaval, physically, hormonally, socially and emotionally. It is also a time when migraine often appears. Being a sensitive individual since infancy, Lucy is more prone to the ups and downs of this period, and may not have the coping skills she needs to navigate to good health.

Focusing on lifestyle, there are many areas for improvement. But bringing them all up at once is usually overwhelming and unproductive. A step-wise approach will be more helpful and gain her cooperation. Her sleep is not great, she is not active and is not hydrating enough (55kg=50-60 oz/day).  Considering her other symptoms, I would probably first put the most focus on hydration, which would certainly help with her dizziness and nausea. At least until her headaches are better, I would encourage having an electrolyte-rich drink every day, preferably in the AM before school. Lucy should also have a 20-24oz water bottle with her at school every day and bring it home empty.   The parents can check out the issue with the school bathrooms, try to identify the cleanest of them all, perhaps near guidance or the nurse’s office.

The next thing to focus on would be exercise with a goal of 30 minutes 3 times/week, doing whatever she enjoys, such as dancing, swimming or bike riding. Sleep is a longstanding issue, and guidelines for sleep hygiene can be shared and slowly worked on, such as no phone charging in her room overnight for a start.  I would also make sure that there is no meal skipping, especially at school. If there are concerns about anxiety, that should be explored and if appropriate, counseling for coping with pain and anxiety can be helpful (CBT). Learning to turn on the relaxation response (CBT, meditation, yoga) can also help calm down her autonomic nervous system and reduce a lot of her environmental sensitivities.

There are several daily medications which would be appropriate for Lucy. I might choose amitriptyline or gabapentin in particular, as they do cause sleepiness and might help with her poor sleep. If she is a poor eater or there is worry about restrictive eating, I would probably not choose topiramate. Almost all headache medications cause mental clouding so the lowest effective dose is best. Propranolol could be used too, as she is not asthmatic nor a performance athlete, though hydration is really important with this medication. It is important to stress that it takes at least 1 month for any difference to be noticed.

For rescue, since she does have aura, Lucy could try a triptan at the earliest evidence of migraine aura, such as rizatriptan. After a dose and rest, if her migraine is aborted, that’s all she needs. Often a combination of a triptan and analgesia is needed for most effective treatment. The simplest thing is often a combination of a triptan and naproxen, using antiemetic as needed.  You can strongly urge no more than 3 days of analgesia per week.  Again keeping a diary, perhaps using the Migraine Buddy app, to gather good data will be helpful.  

She can use the naproxen for her menstrual cramps too. As she gets older, she may discover that she always gets a migraine around her period. She might want to try an oral contraceptive to help with her dysmenorrhea.  Since she has aura, this needs to be done with caution. We recommend using progestin-only preparations with aura, at least to start, perhaps with the guidance of a GYN.  

It might take a few visits to help Lucy feel better, but I would encourage focusing on all 3 areas from the start to help her. Her daily medication may start to decrease her migraine frequency, a better rescue plan makes her feel more positive and in control, more hydration and a little better sleep will help too.  Then you can move on to adjusting her medications as needed, promoting more positive lifestyle changes, helping her to improve her coping skills and resilience. Frequent office visits can really help families make the necessary changes, with your positive encouragement and obvious caring practices. There is nothing more satisfying than guiding a teen and her family toward having self-agency and competence in dealing with a chronic health issue.

So you can see that these are fairly typical patients seen in primary care. I didn’t go into it, but supplements, and complementary interventions are often a part of treatment, as mentioned in pervious posts. I hope that these case studies are helpful in guiding your clinical decision making.  I will include some patient migraine information in the reference materials.  I think I will do another case study in the next post, this time focusing on someone with increased medical complexity, who needs a team approach.