By Arielle Hicks, as told to Alexandra Benisek
I've had migraines for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was always bubbly, involved in extracurriculars, and a straight-A student. One day, I had what I thought was a typical headache, but it wouldn’t go away. Then for weeks, I'd only get a day or two without a headache. Then weeks turned into months.
I was falling asleep in class. My grades were dropping. I wasn’t doing my homework, or doing well on tests anymore. I stopped hanging out with friends and playing sports. I didn't want to do even simple things like go to the movies because everything seemed to bother me.
Eventually, I was able to see a neurologist who told me that I had migraines. It was reassuring to get that diagnosis, to know that I wasn't crazy. Because at 13 years old, a lot of times, people say, “It's all in your head.”
My Ever-Changing Treatment Plan
We were able to start a treatment plan right off the bat. It was a lot of trial and error.
But over time, we noticed that medications alone weren't doing enough. It got to the point where I’d be admitted to the hospital for a few days to up to a week. This couldn't keep happening. I was missing probably half a year of school at this point.
We tried something called nerve blocks. My migraines typically start in the back of my head. So I’d get numbing medication and sometimes a steroid in that area. It was almost like magic. It was instant relief. I wouldn't have migraines for weeks to a month at a time, or more. It had changed my life.
Later, my migraines would start to radiate toward the front of my head. We'd then do the treatment in my eyebrows as well. I remember that the first time I had it done, I cried because it helped me see better. It's not a pleasant thing to get needles in your head. But it's worth it to get rid of constant daily headaches.
As I got older, I became eligible for Botox. I carry a lot of tension, so I get Botox all over my head and in my shoulders to release pressure. Physical therapy is also something I do, to help release tension in my neck. I've done that on and off for the last few years.
To this day, my treatment plan is still changing. I'm currently on an anticonvulsant medication, which I've been using for the past 3 years.
Lifestyle Changes and Therapy Can Help
I’ve made lifestyle changes, like making sure I stay hydrated, eat, and get proper sleep. Those three were the big things, because a lack of them can cause migraines.
I started a headache journal to track what I was doing and find my triggers. For me, I found that chocolate and the food additive MSG lead to migraines. Another big trigger is stress. So my medical team set me up with a behavioral psychologist. A lot of people with migraines tend to be stressed, so it's good to be able to have someone you can talk to.
I’m an outdoors person. But during the winter, the lack of light and seasonal anxiety cause me to have more migraines. During this season, I've started taking an anti-anxiety med. This can help with the pain. It also puts me more at ease, so I'm not getting stressed over certain things. And that also helps reduce my migraines.
My Experience With Occipital Release Surgery
The biggest thing that I've done, after all these other treatments, was surgery. Since most of my headaches start in the back of my head, my surgeon did an occipital release surgery. (In this procedure, your doctor releases nerves in the back of your head from nearby muscles and tissues that may be putting pressure on them.)
That's honestly been the best thing for me. Before, I’d have migraines that would last weeks at a time with only maybe 2 to 5 headache-free days a month. But now, I'm only getting two to three migraines a month.
Even after the surgery, my doctors told me I’m still going to have migraines every now and then. But physical therapy, the medication, and speaking with someone -- it's all really great. Treatment has given me my life back.
My neurologist can empathize, which is important to me. He had been through similar things. I look at him and think, “Wow, this was his life, too. And now he's a doctor, and he's helping people.” Seeing someone else go through this and make it out -- it's inspiring.
Know you're not alone and that with the right treatment, you will feel better.
Arielle Hicks, college student, Baltimore.
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Occipital Release Surgery."