Migraine and concussion case study

So in the past few posts I have talked about the effect of a concussion can have on a patient with an existing headache diagnosis. Now let’s take a look at a classic headache clinic presentation as case study.  I am using a composite of patients and situations, commonly seen in primary care.

Background: Joe is a 17+ year-old young man with episodic migraine with and without aura for the past few years.  He is not on any preventive medications, and has been having migraine headaches at most once per month. While his migraine episodes are infrequent, they can often last a few days. Joe has an aura of neck pain 50% of the time. His pain score on average is 7/10NRS, pain is located all over his head, and accompanied by abdominal pain, photophobia greater than phonophobia, fatigue and nausea. He usually takes sumatriptan 50-100mg, with naproxen 500mg and ondansetron 4mg, which are effective. At times, he may need a Medrol dose pack, which is effective with prolonged migraine.   Triggers for Joe tend to be seasonal changes, stress, barometric pressure changes, lack of sleep and dehydration.   He did have a mild concussion in 2015 (#1), had a reasonable recovery time.  You have followed Joe for the past 4 years. Joe does a good job with his healthy lifestyle; he sleeps well, stays active playing basketball, drinks well and has a healthy diet. He could do a better job with stress management, mainly using the “Netflix and chilling out” strategy. He is an excellent student, takes his academic achievement seriously. He is also a great kid, polite, respectful and funny.

Situation: In late December 2016, Joe suffered a mild concussion (#2) during basketball tryouts. He was seen by his PCP soon after the incident. You had contact with the family by phone several times, and saw him in the office in February 2018. He did not lose consciousness, did missed 5 days of school, at home on cognitive rest. He had significant headache for 10 days, as well as dizziness, fogginess, irritable, difficulty with screens and school work. He used a Medrol dose pack and took naproxen BID for 5 days right after the incident.  His symptoms slowly regressed and he feels like it took about 1 month for the majority of symptoms to subside.  He still had slower reaction time with basketball and took longer to process information. He had some accommodations at school, and took appropriate breaks and use extra time if needed.

It took another month (2 months total) before Joe felt like he was back to normal and fully functional. His migraine headaches did not get significantly worse during this incident, he did not need to start a daily medication. Joe had a routine follow up appointment during the summer 2017 and continued to do well. He was having more stress heading into his senior year around the college application process.

Fast forward to concussion #3: In early October 2017, Joe was hit in the head with a hard-thrown ball in PE class. He reports no LOC but was immediately unsteady and had headache. Shortly after the blow, he became nauseous and dizzy, no confusion. He was seen in the ED immediately after the incident, had a CT scan which was negative. You have talked to the family on the phone since the incident and decided not to use a Medrol dose pack, as it was not well tolerated the last time (nausea, sleep disruption).

You see him in the office 3 weeks later and he has significantly decreased nausea and dizziness but constant headache, rated 5-6/10NRS, worse with exposures (light, noise, smell, general commotion) and concentration. Along with headache, he has phonophobia, photophobia and osmophobia, difficulty with reading and comprehension, using some computer screens, fatigue, sleep disruption and moody/cranky. Initially he was taking naproxen and Tylenol around the clock for the first week, and then stopped naproxen which improved his nausea. He has since been using Tylenol or Excedrin migraine daily, caffeine being very helpful in the AM. He did try hydroxyzine to help with sleep but had a paradoxical reaction to it (felt wired).

He has some accommodations at school, has access to a supportive learning classroom during study and has been excused from gym. He has had a few absences and early dismissals. He is having lots of stress and anxiety about missing classes and tests, which increases headache. He is currently not doing any physical activity. Joe is struggling with his recovery and feels he is not getting better.  You do remind him that it took a full 2 months after his last head hit to be back to baseline, just to reset expectations. This is a predictably stressful time, with the college application process going on.

Decision point: He was advised to stop daily analgesia, can drink a caffeinated drink in the Am and around lunch, if it is helpful. He may use Tylenol on a limited basis, no more than 3 days/week. You talk again about how even a mild head trauma can cause concussion-like symptoms and recovery should be dealt with as a post-concussion recovery. You talk about concussion accommodations, give written information, and they will discuss together about what he might need going forward. He will continue to take frequent breaks. You encourage starting some physical activity using the home exercise bike, in a graded fashion. You introduce Joe to the Insight Timer meditation app to use when trying to de-stress, sleep and decrease pain. He was encouraged to continue with good hydration and sleep hygiene, and to do what was needed to recover, emphasizing that pushing through no matter what would only prolong the recovery. You ask the family to check in with you in a few weeks or sooner with an update.

Update: You have had several phone calls, once every other week, for support and guidance over the past 6 weeks. Joe is very slowly getting better. His headache has diminished, no longer daily but 2-3 times/week. He is able to tolerate being in school now for a full day, only rarely taking breaks during the day. Sleep is back to normal and Joe is back to his usual mood, no longer irritable. Migraines are more often than baseline still, 2-3 per month. You continue to encourage slow and steady return to full functioning, glad to see he is on a positive trajectory.

Follow up appointment visit: You see him in the office in February 2018, 5 months after his 3rd concussion. He is fully recovered now. Migraine frequency and severity is also back to normal. You talk with Joe and his family about trying to avoid further concussion, but acknowledging that sometimes things happen.  At least doing his best to avoid risky situations would be useful.  They wonder if his concussions are putting his brain at risk in the future.  You don’t know for sure, but know there is considerable research ongoing which should shed more light on the subject.

So this is a fairly typical presentation of a teenaged migraineurs who has had several mild head traumas, leading to progressively more symptomatic and prolonged recovery. The closer in time the traumas occur, the more likely the recovery will take longer than expected.  The key to recovery is recognizing the problem, cognitive rest for a short period of time and then progressive return to functioning.  Joe’s school (and many others) had a supportive option available for these situations which was quite helpful.  And the more information that is disseminated about the difficulty of patients with a headache diagnosis have in recovering from concussion, the better and less stressful the outcome.

Chronic migraine, what to do?

So your patient has developed chronic migraine, which is defined as 3-4 migraine per week, 15 migraine days per month, and is predictably miserable. Developing chronic migraine does happen in pediatrics, but it happens much more often in older teens and adults.  You’ve done what you could to prevent it from happening: did a course of steroids, tried increasing their daily medications, worked on lifestyle issues and even sent them to the ED for a cocktail to break the cycle. The ED visit did help but the effect was not sustained, and your patient is back with frequent migraine again. Now what do you do?

I would suggest that this is the time to refer them to a headache specialist, in a clinical setting where there are experienced providers (MD, NP, psychology), skilled at dealing with chronic headache.   Headache programs are usually staffed by a neurologist, or possibly a pain specialist (and rarely by someone who is both) and also a pain psychologist.  Not every neurologist is interested in caring for kids with headaches but pediatric headache programs can be found all across the country. If there are no pediatric headache specialists in your area, there may be an adult provider willing to see an adolescent .  For children, it might be hard to find an alternate provider.  Pediatric headache programs are most often found within a university teaching hospital setting. Some are found within neurology or within a pain (anesthesia) program.

When patients are referred to our headache program, the initial evaluation is done by the pain/neurologist and a pain psychologist.  There are some up front data collection, including psychological measures (FDI, RCMAS-2, CDI-2, fear of pain index, pain catastrophizing scale), done online, prior to the visit. Their medical records are also reviewed. The families see the neurologist first for full history and physical, and then they seen by the pain psychologist- patient and parents, separately and together.  Then a plan is formulated and reviewed with the family by one of our PNPs.  The plan is usually a combination of medications, lifestyle measures, complementary therapies and often a recommendation for psychology for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or physical therapy.

The overriding message to the patients and families is that this is condition that responds best to a multidisciplinary approach, each part of the plan is important. As you all know, each family is different and their expectations and culture vary widely.  Some families are more than happy to change medications, start supplements, even do PT for head and neck stretching and strengthening.  They may rather just focus on lifestyle measures, like working on hydration and sleep.  One of the hardest things to promote is psychology and CBT. Sometimes the family is well aware of mental health concerns, confirmed with the data from the psychological measures and meeting with our psychologist. They are open to the idea and welcome suggestions for where to seek counseling.

But it is often a hard sell to either the parent or patient or both. I encourage that even if there are no serious psychological challenges, having frequent migraine is a source of stress, and can get in the way of participating in life. Learning CBT can provide the teen with better ways to cope with the pain and underlying anxiety and stress. When meeting with particular reluctance/resistance on the part of the teenager, I emphasize that they are not going to ‘talk about your feelings’, but rather to learn concrete skills to use at times of increased pain and stress.  Sometimes the boys are more reluctant (but not always), and the suggestion to see a sports psychologist is better received. There are phone apps that can be used to augment or introduce the CBT exercises. In the end, there is no better way to engage in cognitive behavioral therapy than with a skilled therapist.

Treatments options for chronic migraine:  There are treatments available in a specialty clinic that are not easily obtained in the community. Providers are more familiar with different classes medications used for migraine.  We might be more comfortable in increasing dosing to a more therapeutic level or use medications in combination.  We might also introduce psychopharmacology to the treatment regimen, if indicated. Getting a good medication history is important to decide if the patient actually had an adequate clinical trial of a medication.  Sometimes patient will come in having tried 4-5 daily medications, over the course of 6 months.  Unless there are significant side effects, brief trials are not adequate to determine whether a medication would be helpful. Unfortunately, families and/or patients can have a ‘quick fix’ mentality and inability to tolerate any symptoms or pain, which leads to changing medications before really determining if they work.  Any medication used as a migraine preventive needs to be trialed for at least 2 months, starting low dose and increasing slowly as tolerated. This same approach should be applied to psychopharmacology as well.  This can be hard to communicate to families but necessary.

There are several inpatient options available for chronic or intractable migraine.  Patients can be admitted overnight for the typical migraine cocktail, using ketorolac IV q6h for 24hours, plus adjuncts and steroids. This can help to break a bad cycle, and generally well tolerated.  Also, IV Depakote can be added with mixed effects, followed by 3 days of oral depakote.

Another option is for the patient to be admitted for several days for IV DHE (6 doses, q8h).  This is less well tolerated, with side effects that need to be treated.  Nausea is significant and DHE is generally pretreated with metoclopramide and Benadryl, compazine, ondansetron or even lorazepam.  This can be effective in resetting the migraine pattern back to episodic. Not always pleasant but worth a try.

There are 2 outpatient injection procedures used to decrease the chronicity of migraine.  First there are occipital nerve and trigger point injections, done with local anesthesia (lidocaine and bupivacaine+/- steroids).  The occipital nerve can be inflamed. Trigger points (areas within muscles that are very irritable) will contribute to migraine, other headaches, and myofascial pain.  The area around the greater occipital nerve, as well as any trigger points in the upper cervical, trapezius muscles is 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 incidence of migraine.  Some patients have significant improvement with this procedure; some have no benefit at all.  It is generally well tolerated.

Botox© is the only treatment approved by the FDA for chronic migraine for patients over 18 years.  There are strict criteria for its use and generally insurance companies stick to the rules. We have been able to get approval for a few 16 year olds but this is rare. The criteria includes: 15 migraine days/month, migraines lasting up to 4 hours, failure of several preventive and rescue medications. It is not approved for episodic migraine. Another office procedure, the patient will have 155units of Botox© injected via a 30G needle in 31 specific locations on the face, cranium and neck/shoulders, every 3 months. As you can imagine, this is not the easiest thing for a teenager to go through, causing distress and tears. However, in our practice, we have found it to be fairly effective, with decrease in migraine frequency and intensity in many patients, especially after the 2nd procedure.  It is also generally well tolerated.  Most kids tell me that they hate getting the Botox©, but the results make it worth it.  They joke that they know when it’s time to come back when they move their eyebrows again. I was initially skeptical, wondering if it really worked.  But after performing the procedure many times now and seeing the results, almost all positive, I have become a believer.  There is nothing better than getting kids back to functioning.

Your role: So what happens after your patient is seeing a headache specialist? Does this mean you no longer have a role in managing your patient’s migraines? Of course not! As a headache specialist, I enjoy partnering with primary care providers in the overall care of these patients. The families may come from far away, and only come in to see us every 3-6 months. Their community provider is crucial in supporting the families during the difficult time of chronic migraine. We welcome contact, questions and updates.  These families need as much support as they can get, to keep OUR patient functioning, and avoid disability.

So that’s it for now about migraine. I plan to do a case study next to show migraine management in practice.

When migraine turns chronic

So when does episodic migraine transform into chronic migraine? Well, it’s a matter of frequency. The International Headache Society defines chronic migraine as more than 15 headache days per month over a three month period of which more than eight are migrainous, in the absence of medication over use (2-3+ times per week).

Often your patient will be managing their migraine adequately, has a good effective rescue plan, perhaps on a daily medication. Then something happens- a bad viral illness, a mild concussion, environmental stress or trauma, school stress, leading to impaired headache self care- and migraine gets out of control.  Intervening quickly in this destructive pattern, if possible, is best to avoid transforming into a chronic pattern.

So what do you do when it seems that headaches or migraine are worsening? There are several things that can be helpful. I will often start with doing a quick course of steroids- Medrol dose pack, to intervene and reduce inflammation, trying to reset the migraine control center. I might look at their daily medications and effectiveness and consider increasing the dose for a time. Or I might start a daily medication. At times, I might consider an ED visit or few nights hospitalization for DHE (or something else) to help reset.

Then I look at figuring out triggering the increase in migraine and intervene with that. Has there been a viral infection? Mild head trauma? Stressful family/school/friend situation? What has been done to intervene already? In the case of an infection, has the patient been taking care of themselves, resting, hydration, sleep, good hand hygiene, etc.  Have they checked in with their PCP for anything else going on?

For head trauma, it is important to know that for folks with headaches or migraine, they are much more likely to have concussion-like symptoms from a mild head trauma than other people, due to their baseline neurologic sensitivity. It may not have been a significant blow with loss of consciousness, but the migraineurs can have full blown concussion symptoms, such as severe constant headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, disrupted sleep, difficulty with concentration and screens and focus, and so on. It can be difficult at times to get the teens to really maintain cognitive rest, get off their screens, and allow their brains to heal. Pushing through generally just prolongs the recovery. The sooner this is recognized and steps are taken with regards to school accommodations, the better. Then time will help the healing process. I have had many calls and conversations from families about the difficulty managing concussion symptoms. Oftentimes, the teens are very diligent, striving and responsible students, and trying to get them to slow down and let their brains recover is such a challenge. These are families who are great at managing episodic migraine, but concussion issues are always more difficult than expected. Cooperation and understanding from school personnel can really help in these situations.

In the case of increased environmental stress, being open and honest about what is going on, acknowledging the role stress is playing in headache is the starting point for dealing with these issues. Every situation is different, and often we can trouble shoot and problem solve together to help improve the situation. Just talking about it with someone outside the situation can be therapeutic. If there is counseling in place, that’s a plus.  I always talk about stress management strategies during visits and have a number of suggestions, including meditation apps, breathing exercises, yoga, exercise, and counseling. There are times when anxiety is significantly contributing to the stressful environment, and an SSRI can be started to help.  I have a rule that if I am going to prescribe something for anxiety, they have to agree to get into counseling. It may take some work to get the counseling but quite beneficial. Having a good trusting relationship with the teen and family is the key to being able to have difficult conversations, which can lead to successful care and treatment.

Finally there is an emphasis on getting back to basics of headache healthy habits. I check in on hydration, sleep habits and hygiene, diet, and physical activity. If they are falling down in any of these areas, I encourage getting back to basics. Reviewing their habits can bring unhealthy patterns to light, which allows them to be worked on and corrected. They often do not even recognize they have gone off the track, due to their distress.

Families will call frequently, feeling out of control, in distress. In my opinion, the best thing to do is to get them into the office for evaluation as soon as you can. In fact, any patient going through difficulty should be seen more often in the office. I find that phone contact is useful, but when they are calling nearly daily, face-to-face is needed to get the train back on the tracks. The best way to make sure your instructions are being understood is to interact with them in person. This also communicates to the patient and family that you care about their well-being, want to help, and take them seriously. And there is definitely therapeutic benefit from the in-office personal assessment. Of course, they cannot always get to the office, but outcomes tend to be better when they can.

In my office, we try to not completely fill my schedule every day, in order to accommodate an urgent visit. The wonderful physician I work with is a neurologist, specializing in pain, and sees all the new patients, with some follow ups.  I see all follow up patients, so I can be a little more flexible and can make space. This can be helpful in throwing a lifeline to a family in distress, whether they choose to take it or not.

So basically, as soon as it is recognized that migraine has started to transform to chronic migraine, it is important to intervene quickly. This can often prevent true chronicity, which needs to be avoided at all costs.

In my next post, I will talk about chronic migraine, appropriate treatments and interventions for children and adolescents.

Migraine medications to the rescue…..adjunct and combination therapies

There are 3 groups of medications that are used to treat a migraine attack: migraine abortives, analgesia, and adjuncts.  We have covered the migraine abortives (those medications specifically designed to stop the migraine attack) and analgesia (used to reduce pain) in the past 2 posts.   There are several medications that are used either in combination with others to treat the migraine or to treat other symptoms that happen with migraine.  These medications are referred to as adjuncts in migraine therapy, and are often used in combination.  Again, developing an individualized rescue plan is the key to living with migraine, rather than suffering from migraine.  Patients often need several medications for an effective rescue plan.

Adjuncts

Adjunct medications are those that are given with analgesia to complement and enhance the effect and treat other symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness or insomnia.  A classic combination is an NSAID with ondansetron (Zofran), or metoclopramide (Reglan) =/- benadryl, or prochlorperazine (Compazine). I will often encourage taking an adjunct with analgesia at the same time, and if appropriate, with their triptan.

The most common adjuncts are antiemetics, those medications which treat nausea associated with migraine. Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), meclizine, and/or hydroxyzine (Atarax) are useful in combination with NSAIDs.  There is the added benefit of drowsiness, to help facilitate restorative sleep.  Ondansetron is also useful for nausea, generally does not cause drowsiness.  Compazine and Reglan are seen as primary agents for treating migraine as well as treating nausea.  The side effects associated with these 2 medications can be avoided by using them with Benadryl.  Dosing is based on weight and age appropriate.

Another option often used in the ED is steroids, such as dexamethasone.  If a patient has had this in the ED, they could use this as an outpatient rescue as well.  Oral magnesium is sometimes used as a rescue medication too.

Treatment Combinations

Many patients develop a migraine rescue strategy, over time and with experience, that involves a combination of medications.  It is always a very individual plan and usually discovered by trial and error.  They might have reasonably good results with a triptan plus antiemetic, or triptan plus analgesia. They may have the best results with an ‘attack pack’ of 3 medications taken together, such as sumatriptan, naproxen and Benadryl.  In cases when a triptan is not effective, NSAID plus antiemetic is a good combination.

The key is to work with the family, figure out what works best, and then BE PREPARED for the migraine to happen.  For younger kids, their parents should always travel with a dose of each of their rescue medications.  They need to have several doses of each medication with the school nurse as well. Older teens can have a prepacked plastic bag with 1 dose of each medication that they can carry with them outside of school.  (Make sure it’s labelled, for obvious reasons).  Most high schools do not allow for self-medication. It is well worth it for the family to have a good relationship and understanding with the school nurse; that when the teen comes to the nurse’s office, they can get their medication promptly and have a chance to lie down and nap for up to 30 minutes at least. Having a clear plan communicated to the school nurse is so helpful.  The workload of our school nurses is tremendous, and having a collaborative relationship with them will make rescue therapy much easier and effective for the kids.

Complementary rescue remedies

In addition to the medications we have talked about, there are a number of complementary interventions that can really help resolve a migraine.

  • Aromatherapy: using an essential oil, such as peppermint, lavender, ginger, or a specially formulated blend (M’Grain from Young Living products) 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, breathing technique, using a relaxation/meditation app, soothing music.  My favorite is the Insight Timer app, so many options and free.

Final rescue thoughts

Having migraine is challenging for the whole family. Migraines often occur at the most inconvenient times, often out of the blue.  It’s important to remember that stress is a trigger for most patients, and stress is not always negative. Positive stress, such as excitement about an upcoming vacation trip, can also trigger migraine.

I also cannot emphasize enough how important it is to treat the migraine promptly- hit it hard and fast- for best results and resolution.  Giving parts of a rescue plan, half-doses spread out over time, usually just prolongs the episode and makes it more difficult to resolve. And there really is no point in prolonging the agony, especially when it is your kid’s pain.

Being prepared, having rescue medications, and extra electrolyte-rich hydration fluids can go a long way in turning a migraine episode from a disaster into a blip on the radar.