Advocating for Migraine and Headache Research

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

This week I had the privilege of attending the 12th annual “Headache on the Hill” lobbying event in Washington, DC, which is organized by the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy (AHDA). This was my second time being involved and I plan to attend for as many years as possible.

Headache on the Hill is a two-day engagement that began with a briefing for over 160 advocates who traveled to Washington from around the country. This is when we heard from experts and learned how to strategize, focus on what we want to achieve, and get an opportunity to engage and ask questions.  

Early the next morning we had a headache policy forum breakfast and heard from Rep. Andy Harris, MD (R-Maryland), who lives with cluster headaches and is passionate about our cause.

“If we have to drag the federal government kicking and screaming into a modern age on treatment of pain syndromes, including headache pain syndromes, migraine, cluster headaches - we'll do it and I'll be there with you every step of the way," Harris said.

After breakfast, we all joined together to venture as a group to Congress to meet with our representatives and shares our stories on the struggles we face as migraine and headache sufferers.



Most important is the need of more funding for research on headache disorders. Only through research do we possess a chance at ever understanding all the layers of this complex medical problem.

Headache disorders affect more than 90% of Americans and cost the economy $31 billion every year in lost productivity, yet less than 1% of the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spent on headache and migraine research.

We are not attempting to suggest that our cause is more worthwhile than others. We're merely pointing out that we are on severely unequal ground. How is it that so many millions of Americans are enduring migraines and headaches, yet it is the least funded field of medical research? 

We know that chronic migraine is the second leading cause of global disability and cluster headache has the deserved reputation of being "the most severe pain that humans can experience." I have endured both in some form every day for almost 20 years straight.

Is there a logical reason why 59% of Americans impacted by chronic migraine who seek refuge in emergency departments receive opioid medication? Opioids can worsen the severity and frequency of migraines. Meanwhile, we have to fight for other treatments such as oxygen therapy, which has been proven to assist in decreasing cerebral blood flow and lessen the pain of cluster headaches. Oxygen is natural, has no side-effects and is non-habit forming, which are the approaches the NIH should be investing in.

Breath work and mindfulness meditation have also changed the game for me personally and I am grateful to declare that discipline in those practices has led to an overall heightened sense of awareness, which actually helps me with coping.

We've recently been fortunate enough to have several injections introduced as preventative treatments for migraine. That’s a great start -- though many of us are unable to gain proper access to these expensive treatments due to our circumstances.


The bottom line is that by showing up in D.C. and by advocating every chance we get in regular everyday life, we can make progress in raising awareness and funding for more research. Our efforts during Headache on the Hill were well received. Advocates from over 40 states attended, our meetings were empowering and there was empathy for our stories.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the members of Congress that made time to meet with us, the advocates who were alongside me for this adventure, and everyone who has or will participate in Headache of the Hill. 


Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook support group, and Peace & Love Enterprises, a wellness coaching practice focused on holistic health.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Study Finds Vagus Nerve Stimulation Delays Pain Signals

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Neuromodulation devices that stimulate a key nerve in the neck – the vagus nerve --- have shown potential in treating a variety of chronic pain conditions, including migraines and autoimmune diseases. A new study helps us understand how the devices work.

Researchers studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that vagus nerve stimulation appears to dampen and delay how the brain responds to pain signals.

"It's thought that people with certain differences in how their bodies -- their autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems -- process pain may be more susceptible to PTSD," said Imanuel Lerman, MD, a pain management specialist and associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “And so we wanted to know if we might be able to re-write this 'misfiring' as a means to manage pain, especially for people with PTSD."



Lerman and his colleagues at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to get a look at the brains of 30 healthy volunteers after a painful heat stimulus was applied to their legs.

Half were treated with vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) for two minutes -- via electrodes placed on the neck – before the heat stimulus. The other half received a mock stimulation.

Researchers found that VNS delayed the response to heat stimulus in several areas of the brain known to be important for sensory and emotional pain processing. These pain-related brain regions were activated ten seconds later than participants who received sham stimulation. Volunteers who received VNS also sweated less in response to the heat.

“Not everyone is the same -- some people may need more vagus nerve stimulation than others to achieve the same outcomes and the necessary frequencies might change over time -- so we'll need to personalize this approach," said Lerman, who reported his findings in the journal PLOS ONE.  "But we are hopeful and looking forward to the next steps in moving this approach toward the clinic."

The next step for researchers is to conduct a clinical study of VNS on military veterans in the San Diego area. They want to determine if at-home vagus nerve stimulation can reduce emotional pain and neural inflammation associated with PTSD. People with PTSD often have intrusive memories, negative thoughts, anxiety and chronic pain. It is usually treated with psychotherapy, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved VNS for the treatment of pain caused by cluster headache and migraine. A handheld device – called gammaCore –  is currently available by prescription for $600 to treat those conditions. 

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research recently reported that VNS significantly reduced pain and fatigue associated with lupus, an autoimmune disease that damages joints, skin and internal organs. In a small pilot study, lupus patients who were treated with VNS for five minutes daily had a significant decrease in pain and fatigue after just five days.

An implanted vagus nerve stimulator is also being tested for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Nerve Stimulator Approved for Cluster Headache

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A neuromodulation device that stimulates a key nerve in the neck has been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for the prevention of cluster headache.

The handheld device – called gammaCore – is the first and only product cleared by the FDA for the prevention of cluster headache. It has already been cleared for the relief of pain caused by cluster headaches and migraines.

Cluster headaches are a series of short but extremely painful headaches that can occur every day for weeks and months at a time. They strike suddenly and subside quickly, but are so severe they’ve been called “suicide headaches.” Men are more likely to get cluster headaches than women. The cause is unknown and there is no cure. Recommended treatments for cluster headaches are limited to oxygen and triptan. 

“The FDA clearance of gammaCore for adjunctive use for the preventive treatment of cluster headache has the potential to help the approximately 350,000 Americans impacted by this debilitating condition often referred to as a ‘suicide headache,’” said Frank Amato, CEO of electroCore, the maker of gammaCore.

“We are pleased that cluster headache patients now have a FDA-cleared option, and one that is both safe and effective, especially given the difficulty in treating cluster headache and the limitations of current treatments.”

gammaCore is available by prescription only but can be self-administered by patients. It sends a mild electric charge to the vagus nerve in the neck, which stimulates the nerve while reducing pain. It’s recommended that the gammaCore be used twice daily to prevent cluster headache and reduce its severity.



The $600 device also has regulatory approval for the treatment of cluster headache, migraine and medication overuse headache in the European Union, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia, Colombia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Canada. 

Potential Treatment for Lupus

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from the base of the brain through the neck, heart, lungs and abdomen. In addition to cluster headache, scientists think vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) could be useful in treating a variety of chronic pain conditions.



In a small pilot study at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, researchers found that VNS significantly reduced pain and fatigue associated with lupus, an autoimmune disease that damages joints, skin and internal organs. Musculoskeletal pain is one of the most common lupus symptoms, affecting up to 95 percent of patients.

Feinstein researchers used an experimental device to stimulate the vagus nerve through the ear. Lupus patients who were treated with the device for five minutes daily had a significant decrease in pain and fatigue after just five days.

“Previous studies at the Feinstein Institute have found that under certain conditions, stimulating the vagus nerve can reduce inflammation,” Timir Datta-Chaudhuri, PhD, wrote in an email to PNN.

“With inflammation being a factor in many conditions, the vagus nerve could be used as a therapeutic target for conditions beyond lupus, and potentially for pain, when inflammation is a contributing factor. In fact, this discovery has been used in the past to develop bioelectronic devices which have been tested in clinical trials in Europe and shown to be effective in reducing the joint pain and inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.”

Datta said there are plans to continue testing the device in clinical trials. If the results are positive, the Feinstein Institute would seek to partner with other labs and companies to create a device for wider use.

Cannabis Gave Me Hope in My Darkest Hour

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

I've lived most of my life with an ongoing migraine -- often trapped in a hazy brain fog induced by prescription medication.  

Suggestions of all kinds of alternatives have been made to me, including cannabis. But it wasn't until my very first headache cluster – which lasted 54 straight days -- that I gave in and the medicinal use of this miracle drug saved my life.

At that point, I hadn't slept in an inhumane amount of time, wasn't able to work, participate in life, or keep food and drink down. Then a friend literally begged me to "take a hit."

Call me a square, but I didn’t take a sip of alcohol until my 21st birthday and had never used marijuana or had the desire to.  What did I have to lose?

I had tried everything else. My arms were still bruised from IV's at the ER. So with absolutely no more craps to give, I lit up.  And almost instantaneously felt better.

I spent a lot of time battling shame for breaking the law and the stigma of marijuana use. But I've evolved to accept my truth. Marijuana is not a gateway drug, unless a person makes the choice to escalate their substance use. No treatment option is meant to be approached as a cure, nor should it be a crutch.   

Marijuana can be ingested in multiple ways, there are countless strains and products without the THC itself -- although that's the key element that eases my ailments. It helps me combat nausea, cultivate an appetite, gives a slight boost in morale, and get quality rest.  


Cannabis works for me about half the time.  But that goes deeper than a glass half empty or half full.  It's a matter of having a resemblance of a life or not.   

There have been no overdoses or deaths reported from this natural plant. Over two dozen states, as well as our nation's capital, have adapted to the reality that it can be used as medicine.  It has saved and made A LOT of money, lowered criminal activity and rescued many others aside from myself.  

If someone had told me one day I'd be writing about marijuana for the world to see, I wouldn't have believed them.  But my public, unapologetic declaration is that cannabis provided a glimmer of hope during my darkest hour.  I share this not to promote it or advise anyone else, but because I want to raise awareness and demonstrate the courage to step out of your comfort zone.   

I've wounded relationships over this stuff, because not everyone can wrap their minds around it. I've also gotten in a bite sized amount of trouble over it -- munchie pun fully intended. It’s not for everyone but there are good reasons ill patients are being granted access to it. There’s research to support marijuana being helpful in attacking the opioid crisis, both for those struggling with addiction as well as those who are prescription dependent.    

How a person chooses to conduct themselves is a matter of free will. It has nothing to do with whether a CBD oil extract or pot brownie helps them get out of bed in the morning. It’s a matter of self-accountability and self-care. Cannabis saved my life.  


Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Learning to Cope With Loss

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

There has never been an employment situation that has not been impacted by my chronic migraines, fibromyalgia and other health conditions. I'm a worker bee but pushing myself too hard for too long while trying to keep up has resulted in my inability to pursue aspirations that are not physically feasible.

The realization of not being able to live up to who you feel like you are is a tough one. A person cannot refrain from asking: What is wrong with me?


All the while, outsiders ask the same question, most with a hinge of disbelief pertaining to "invisible illness."

She looks and seems fine. Is anything really wrong with her?

In that regard, I've chosen to no longer stress over occasionally needing to wear my sunglasses indoors.

At least people can see those!

It can be a difficult concept to understand, how someone can seem fine one day, then be bedridden for the duration of any given week. Things we may have been able to do, even just the day before, vary moment by moment.

I’ve sensed an undertone of judgement regarding what taking proper care of myself looks like. A few examples of what I mean: 

“Must be nice to lie around in bed all day!”

“You’re still sick?”

“I have headaches too, but still manage to….”

In an effort to alleviate the pressure of these expectations, I've gotten to the point that I do my absolute best to avoid making commitments or plans. I only make them with those who understand my need for sudden disappearances, last minute cancellations, awkward positioning and random yoga stretches.

One of the greatest gifts I've ever given myself is taking good care of and putting myself first. Despite what seems to be a popular belief, that doesn’t mean trips to a day spa or an exotic beachfront. Pursuing self-care for me is the difference between being somewhat functional or a dungeon dweller.

Every time my health interferes with whatever I had my sights on, it’s like ripping gauze off a wound that’s not yet healed. It reopens its own spectrum of painful emotions, often leading to guilt over missing out and all those our absence is impacting. It’s a double-edged sword in a battle I seemingly cannot win.

It can be frustrating, but inward compassion is imperative. Think of it this way: When we know someone we care about is feeling unwell, what do we do? We offer support, advise them to rest, take the time they need, and do whatever is necessary for the sake of their health and healing.

We as chronic pain warriors deserve the same compassion, empathy, respect and self-care. I've learned over the years that forgiveness, patience and grace for ourselves is just as important as having that capacity for others.  

My experience has mostly been a lonesome one. Never once have I had a medical professional ask me how I am coping with these heavy burdens that are anticipated to be lifelong. I have still not been able to fully comprehend the gravity of what that diagnosis means.

It has been an excruciating process to get to where I am now. There's no guide book for this stuff, we gotta just keep trying until we find a way to make all of this serve us -- as opposed to the other way around.

I prefer now to find the positive in changes as they come, not worry about them until they do, and neglect the urge to over-analyze them long after they've arrived.  For me, it’s all about finding the joy, beauty and blessings in the given. There is always something to be appreciated and admired.

We must remain true to ourselves, even through and despite the turmoil of chronic pain. It may not reflect the vision we once had, but there’s no need to look back.  We are not headed in that direction anymore.  


Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

A Beautiful Catastrophe

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

Having lived my last 18 years with chronic migraines, I have my fair share of headache and migraine "poses." Yet I must admit, they're never as glamorous as what one can find in a fashion magazine. 

There’s a trend in the world of fashion to direct photo shoots in a way that brings attention to the structure of the model’s face or to exaggerate their make-up. They often to do this by framing a model’s face as if they’re experiencing head pain.

This has become known as the “migraine pose” or “headache pose” and they recently caused quite a stir on Instagram and Twitter among those that truly endure these ailments.

“If you don’t have migraine disease please don’t use #migrainepose,” a poster warned a makeup artist who shared some of her work.


“Wow. Talk about insensitive to true migraine sufferers. Migraines look nothing like this primped model. AWFUL,” wrote another.

“Please admit your ignorance to migraine disease and show your support by instead posting a picture for #shadesformigraine. Help teach others that diseases of any kind should not be mocked,” said another migraine sufferer.  


I don’t look like any of these models when I have a bad migraine. Ordinarily, I may be hooked up to an IV machine due to severe dehydration or I might be kneeling to the porcelain Gods attempting to combat overwhelming nausea.

There's also light and sound sensitivity, dizziness, vision disturbances, vomiting and fatigue. I describe my pain as a continuous “brain freeze” or feeling like my head was slammed against a wall.

Here are six poses that I have when I go through various stages of defeat, despair, distress, misery, grief and agony.

My most infamous pose of all? I'm nowhere to be found because I remain barricaded in a pitch black, silent room as I pray for the strength not to lose that last shred of sanity I have left and resist the urge to put an end to all of this already.

That image isn't sexy enough to sell magazines, is it? Nevertheless, that's the reality that millions of Americans are forced to live with and there is absolutely nothing pretty about it. 

When experiencing that level of discomfort, people are debilitated and focusing on any task can be impossible. To top it off, there is often no way of knowing how long an attack may last.


Then there's the heavy emotions, such as guilt for missing out on things or feeling as though we are a burden and letting others down. And there’s the frustration and anger of being sick and tired of being tired and sick.  

People who are not experienced with enduring this type of pain likely don't stop to consider these things. Although we wouldn't wish this lifestyle on anyone, there is a priceless value and basic human need in being validated, acknowledged and understood. We need a pose for that.  


Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

When Home Feels More Like a Prison

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

Recently, my primary care doctor recommended I go in for a “sleep study,” which is exactly what it sounds like. My immediate thought was, “I've been doing my own sleep study for 28 years, want to know what I’ve learned?”

But jumping through society's hoops is an art form that I've somewhat mastered, so let's flash forward to the appointment that took place weeks later.  

I’m in a closet sized room with a sleep study “fellow” -- meaning I'm going to sit there and essentially explain my whole life story to him, and then I get to do it again with the actual doctor.  

He's asking me about sleep, naturally, so I tell him there’s no sense of regularity as I am fortunate if I get a couple solid hours of sleep a night. I ordinarily never reach my REM cycle, so eventually my body will crash and burn -- resulting in too much sleep that's damaging to my natural rhythm and makes the existing problem worse. 

Chronic pain impacts every aspect of my life, but they have no interest in discussing that because this appointment is only about sleep. How is it productive to disregard the biggest motivational factor in the situation at hand?  Guess I'll have to go to medical school to find out.

Then comes the medication talk, which has actually gotten easier over the years as I've stopped playing the role of a pharmaceutical guinea pig -- hence there being less to discuss. All of the drugs he recommends I have already tried, and I am now only interested in holistic approaches.

This is when he brings up anxiety and depression, almost as ammunition against me -- or so it felt like. Do I consider myself anxious or depressed? How long have I been afflicted?  Then comes a whole new list of pill suggestions that are thought to help anxiety and depression. I feel like we are both wasting our time.

pain art courtesy of

pain art courtesy of

"Anyone would feel that way if they endured never-ending, agonizing pain,” I told him.   

He looks at my paperwork, sees that I've selected “homemaker” under employment and proceeds to say, “You don't work, so..."

This remark was declared in such a way as to suggest it is no wonder that I'm not tired, because I don't do anything all day.

"I actually work quite a bit," I objected and proceeded to list my duties.

I maintain the house while my lovely fiancé works. I cook, clean and do laundry. I have ownership over taking care of our doggy daughter, Aiva. I facilitate monthly group meetings, write newsletters, moderate online forums and volunteer countless hours. I also attempt to maintain a bite-size version of a social life and strive to make self-care a priority. 

Oh! And I live within a body that mostly feels as though it is deconstructing from the inside out.

He reported that naps are detrimental to our health, which is a comment I shrugged off because, clearly, he's never been chronically ill and has yet to be a parent.

People may peer into the window of my life and think to themselves how nice it must be to sit around at home all day while a man goes out to earn his keep as well as mine. But I've got some quick facts for anyone that would spend even a split moment envying the life of a chronic pain warrior.

I've been in the process of pursuing disability for just shy of four years -- which I began a decade after I really should have. But I was so hard on myself and likely a bit too proud, for this isn't at all the life I had envisioned. But I am grateful and committed to making the best out of it while demanding my ailments be validated.   

Prior to getting engaged, the place we live in was paid for in full by me. Even after becoming unwell to the point of stepping away from full-time work, I still continued to attempt working part-time outside of the home. But I was digging myself a hole in the ground, which led to the need of accepting even that was not in the cards, which led to the emergency need to access my retirement funds. 

I do not share this information for attention or pity but merely to drive the point home as to how crippling all of this can be on a person, especially over a long period of time. For some of us, home is less a place of tranquility and feels more like a prison.

Yesterday, I cleaned and organized our home, got laundry done, ran some errands and cooked a delicious healthy dinner. Today, I stayed in bed until 10:45 am, didn't leave the house, have difficultly navigating the stairs, hope to vacuum later if able, and have pain in every extremity. 

These are things that this fellow, as well as the doctor that graced us with his 30 second presence, didn’t seem to care about, let alone have the time to begin to understand. 

I'm thankful that I can do the things I can when I am able. It's imperative we take full advantage of the gifts we have while still able to do so, as we never know what tomorrow will bring. All it would take is a slight change in circumstance to make what may feel like the worst even worse.

Living as Spoonies, we are much too quick to accept being dehumanized. We even do it at times to ourselves.  May we all unapologetically let go of the weight of feeling we must somehow justify, explain, excuse or defend ourselves. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have, and know that is it both worthwhile and good enough.  

Benefits from my sleep study appointment include the mention of melatonin supplements, something I've tried in the past and will consider trying again, as well as “light therapy” to promote a regular internal clock which I plan to follow up on.


Mia Maysack resides in Wisconsin.  She lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia.  Mia is the founder of a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill, and was recently honored by the U.S. Pain Foundation as its “Pain Warrior of the Month.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Approves Third Injectable Migraine Drug

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Migraine sufferers will soon have another treatment option. Eli Lilly has announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Emgality (galcanezumab), a monthly self-injected drug for the prevention of migraine in adults.

Emgality is the third injectable migraine drug the FDA has approved this year. In May, the agency gave approval to Amgen’s Aimovig (erenumab), the first migraine drug that uses fully human monoclonal antibodies to target receptors in the brain where migraines are thought to originate.  Last week, the FDA approved Teva’s Ajovy, a migraine prevention drug that can be injected monthly or quarterly.

Lilly said the efficacy and safety of Emgality was demonstrated in three Phase 3 clinical trials in patients with episodic or chronic migraine.

Emgality reduced the number of monthly migraine headache days by an average of 4.7 days in patients with episodic migraine and by 4.8 days in patients with chronic migraine.  

Migraine affects a billion people worldwide and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. Women are three times more likely to suffer from migraine than men.


“Despite the devastating impact of migraine, only about 10 percent of people living with the disease are currently taking a preventive treatment,” Christi Shaw, president of Lilly Bio-Medicines, said in a statement. “With this approval, we are thrilled to offer a preventive treatment option to adults living with this disease.”

Lilly said Emgality would be available “shortly” at a listed price of $575 for a single injection or $6,900 annually. That introductory price is identical to that of Aimovig and Ajovy, although various discounts or rebates could make the cost lower. Lilly said it would offer Emgality for up to 12 months free to patients with commercial insurance under its patient assistance program.   

“We know the impact high deductible and rising out-of-pocket costs have on families, and Lilly takes seriously our role in ensuring affordable access to Emgality for as many patients as possible,” said Shaw.

Earlier this month, the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use issued a positive opinion of Emgality for the prevention of migraine in adults who have at least four migraine days per month. That positive opinion was referred for final action to the European Commission, which grants drug approval in the European Union.

My Guidebook for Living With Chronic Pain

By Mia Maysack, Guest Columnist

Chronic pain can mean a lot of different things, depending on its severity on any given day as well as the seriousness of the condition that causes it. Those of us of who live with it are already at somewhat of a disadvantage, as opposed to others living more carefree lives.

Chronic migraines, for example, make it difficult for me to be able to complete even the simplest of daily tasks due to the confusion, pain, overall sensitivity and over-stimulation they cause.

This creates a mandatory “go with the flow” approach to life due to the unpredictability of symptoms. Plans, appointments, dates, commitments, family gatherings and social activities -- not to mention work -- are constantly needing to be changed, rescheduled or canceled. That gets old fast for us, as well as for everyone our absence affects.

There's no limit to how great of a ripple effect that can have. I have a personal nagging guilt I carry in my heart each time it happens. In an effort to alleviate the pressures, I've gotten to the point where I do my absolute best to avoid making plans.

I may live mostly feeling “under the weather” but at the end of the day and all throughout it I am still a person. I have agendas, hopes, dreams and goals, so please understand the disappointment and frustration I feel from continually placing everything on hold and being powerless to stop it.

Picture this: A thief breaks into your home in the middle of the night. Imagine watching this person tear your home apart, destroy so much of what you care about and worked hard for, yet you are unable to do anything to control the situation or make it stop. That criminal for me are my migraines. They steal a lot from me.


Several times now, I have had a successful life built only to witness the big bad wolf of head pain come and blow it all down. Then I am confronted with gazing upon the ruins my life and reflecting on how much it took to get there in the first place. I then decide that dwelling in the past will not fix or solve nothing, so I take a deep breath and clean up the mess yet again.  

There has never been an employment situation that has not been impacted by my illness. I'm a worker bee, but pushing myself so hard for so long has resulted in an inability to continue onward with my aspirations. The realization of not being able to live up to who you want to be is a tough one. One cannot refrain from inquiring within, “What is wrong with me?”

All the while, outsiders have the same question, most with a tinge of disbelief: “She looks and seems fine. What, if anything, is really wrong with her?” 

Taking Care of Me First

One of the greatest gifts I've ever given myself is taking care of me first. Whoever is meant to stand by you through this treacherous journey will always be understanding when you do. 

Think of it this way: When you know someone that you care about is feeling unwell, what do you do?  You offer support, advise them to rest, take the time they need, and do whatever is necessary for the sake of their health.

We as chronic pain sufferers deserve the same compassion, empathy, respect and self-care.  I've learned that forgiveness, patience and grace for ourselves is just as important as having those qualities available for others. 

Never once have I had a medical professional ask how I am doing in terms of coping with this heavy burden of a life-long condition. It has been an excruciating process to get to where I am now. There is no guidebook for living with chronic pain. So I created my own.

I prefer to find the positive in changes as they come and to not worry or over-analyze them after they've arrived. For me, it's all about finding the joy, beauty and blessing in the given moment. There is always something to be appreciated and admired.

There's no doubt that an underlayer of sadness accompanies our ailments and it's important for us to understand that is completely normal. It's also crucial to allow ourselves to truly feel that grief. There's no expiration date or time limit on learning how to deal with this crappy hand we have been dealt. We keep our poker faces on as we figure out how to conduct ourselves because folding up or giving in is will never be a suitable option. We are tough and have come too far to do that.

When it gets to be too much and you're not sure how much longer you can hold on, raise your stakes and tell the universe: “Let's do this. I am all in!”


Mia Maysack lives in Wisconsin. She is lives with chronic migraine and cluster headaches. Mia is a proud supporter of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and was recently honored by the U.S. Pain Foundation as its “Pain Warrior of the Month.”

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Positivity Is My Survival Technique

By Mia Maysack, Guest Columnist

As a young girl, swimming and diving were my main passions in life. I spent every day at our neighborhood pool, from the moment they opened it until the second they closed -- even on rainy days.  I figured I was already wet and there was a great group of lifeguards. I didn't have a care in the world.

All of that changed at the age of 10 when I developed “swimmer’s ear” -- an infection of the ear canal that is often brought on by water that remains in the ear after swimming.  The water creates a moist environment that aids bacterial growth.  

After a routine visit for ear drops at a local clinic, I returned home to rest. Within a couple hours, I awoke from a nap feeling stiff from my neck on down. It was as if I were suddenly paralyzed. I was terrified. The next few moments felt like an eternity. If my mother had not come in to check on me, I could have died right there in my childhood bed.  

My mom knew something was wrong with her young and healthy daughter, and it wasn't much longer before we were on our way to the hospital. During the ride, I remember feeling the head pain for the very first time.

I also recall feeling upset with my father, because on the way he had all the windows down and I felt so cold.  He also had his rock music blasting, which angered me considering how much head pain I was feeling. I did not realize it then, but he was only doing his best to keep me awake - as I was slipping into a coma. 

After arriving at the hospital in a wheelchair, I threw up all over my poor dad. After profusely apologizing, I fell into a deep sleep. Days passed without anyone having any idea what was going on. When my desperate mother inquired, she was told, "Every moment Mia survives is a miracle."

Eventually it was discovered my body was fighting a grave infection and emergency surgery was required. The bacteria was harbored within the mastoid bone of my left ear. It should have been a relatively quick fix, but during the procedure the surgeons found the bone so infected that it crumbled into tiny pieces. It required hours of focused and careful work. 

After sewing my head shut, I was left to rest in the intensive care unit. It was then that left side of my face began oddly twitching. My family had been through the ringer at this point, but my mother did not leave my side. She noticed this change and called for immediate attention, fearing I was having a stroke or seizure.



It turned out there had been bacteria left behind and it was now attacking my facial nerves, which demanded a second emergency surgery. 

This rare experience left me with deafness in my left ear, partial facial paralysis that has turned into permanent facial synkinesis, as well as chronic migraines and daily cluster headaches. Considering the odds I was up against, I often refer to myself as walking miracle. Bacterial meningitis is swift, sometimes deadly and often results in limb removal. So although my entire life had been turned upside down, I knew I was lucky to be alive. 

Although I go through life with a positive and gratitude attitude, my head has been hurting every single day since this happened. We had no way of knowing back then that I would live with the consequences of that experience forever. I am thankful to have learned the concept of mortality at a very young age, as that helped to cultivate core values, morals and choices for myself  -- which kept me out of a lot of unnecessary trouble other kids my age were getting into. 

Upon returning to school, none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. Instead of checking in and asking what happened to me, untrue stories circulated and the teasing began. Children can be downright cruel in middle school and high school, and because I now looked different than everyone else, I was an easy target. I would spend my recess inside the nurse’s office, working with her on facial retraining exercises. I used to glue or tape my eye closed at night, otherwise it would have essentially dried out and I may have suffered vision loss or lost the eye altogether. 

Accepting My Differences

I have come a long way since then with overall acceptance and I embrace my differences because they represent my fight for life, health and well-being. 

Over all these years, I have tried just about every treatment for my pain that anyone could think of. Medications further complicated things, while neglecting to help with the underlying issues.  Diet changes made no difference.  Nor did biofeedback, acupuncture, Botox, dry needling, trigger point injections, herbal remedies, massage, and chiropractic. The list goes on and on. 

I feel a deeply rooted disappointment with our current healthcare system. We have made many powerful discoveries and improvements in medicine, and the breakthroughs are tremendous for many.  I have come across some great personnel within the medical community, however they are few and far between. 

Due to my illness being invisible, I am often either treated as though I am overreacting, flat out lying, drug seeking or being dramatic. At one point I was banned from a pain clinic for missing a few appointments  because I did not feel safe enough to drive myself.

There is a common attitude toward chronically ill patients, that we are not fully taking responsibility for ourselves or our ailments, and a general opinion within society that we should pop an aspirin and shut up already. If only it were that easy or simple. I wouldn't be here writing this if it was. 

Living each day with head pain, among other discomforts, gets in the way of me being able to think straight and living the life I used to envision for myself.  Often overlooked or flat out disregarded is the constant losses the chronically ill are forced to navigate through.

For example, I worked very hard to earn a job at the very same hospital that saved my life, but ultimately had to step down because they were unwilling to accommodate my need to work fewer hours. I've also had to drop out of college multiple times because they are not set up to cater to the needs of those who suffer from debilitating pain. 

Within the past year and a half, my daily pain scale number of 5/6 has escalated to a 7/8, which has been devastating. Due to high demand, getting in to be seen at a pain clinic (if you are fortunate enough to have one in your area) can take months. When you've been stuck in a cluster headache for 90+ days, it's only natural to feel isolated and alone. There are times I have asked myself how or if I am able to go on like this. 

Our health is one of the most important things in life. That truth is what led me to pursue patient advocacy so passionately. I began witnessing other people getting treated the same way that I was, and it sparked a fire to advocate for the sake of them as well. 

I am living proof that we are far more than any diagnosis. Positivity has become a survival technique as well as a coping mechanism for me. It has led me down a path of holistic wellness through mindfulness and the humble reminder that -- although things could definitely be better -- they could have been much worse.  


Mia Maysack lives in Wisconsin. Mia is a proud supporter of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and was recently honored by the U.S. Pain Foundation as its “Pain Warrior of the Month.”

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Migraine Costly to Workers and Employers

By Steve Weakley

Most employees who suffer from chronic migraine headaches miss nearly a full week of work (4.6 days) due to migraines each month, according to a large new online survey.

Amgen and Novartis surveyed over 11,000 migraine sufferers in 31 countries to demonstrate how painful and costly the condition can be for both workers and employers.  The My Migraine Voice survey included people who had four or more migraine days a month.

Eighty percent of the survey takers in the U.S. said their employers knew about their migraines, but only 21 percent said their bosses offered support and understanding. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said migraines impaired their work performance and many felt judged by co-workers as a result.

"From being afraid to speak up about their disease at work in fear of losing their jobs, to feeling judged by colleagues, the stigma around migraine in the workplace is an ongoing issue that the migraine community faces daily," said Mary Franklin, executive director of the National Headache Foundation, in a press release.

"The findings from the My Migraine Voice survey shed light on the true impact of migraine at work, and showcase the urgent need for employers and employees to change the dialogue around migraine."

According to one estimate, U.S. employers lose about $11 billion a year in missed work and lost productivity because of migraines.


Amgen and Novartis presented the survey findings at the 60th annual meeting of the American Headache Society in San Francisco, to help stir up interest in their new injectable migraine drug, Aimovig (erenumab). The FDA recently approved the monthly self-injected drug for the prevention of migraine in adults.

Aimovig uses human antibodies to target brain receptors that are thought to trigger migraines. Three clinical trials demonstrated that the drug reduced the number of migraine days for sufferers by an average of 2.5 days per month.

One obstacle in getting people to try Aimovig is its price. Amgen say the drug will cost about $6,900 a year, or $575 for each monthly dose. Amgen holds the sales rights for Aimovig in the United States, Canada and Japan, while Novartis will sell the drug in Europe and the rest of the world.

Amgen is offering a migraine management program to several large U.S. employers. The program consists of an educational program as well as a research study to document the impact of migraine on worker absenteeism, presenteeism, healthcare utilization and costs. The wellness portion of the program includes webinars, email and website tips, and a  mobile app to track migraine symptoms.

FDA Approves Injectable Migraine Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a monthly self-injected drug for the prevention of migraine in adults.

Aimovig (erenumab) is the first FDA-approved migraine treatment in a new class of drugs – known as fully human monoclonal antibodies -- that target receptors in the brain where migraines are thought to originate. It blocks the activity of calcitonin gene-related peptide, a molecule involved in migraine attacks.

"The FDA approval of Aimovig represents a long-awaited and important therapeutic development for patients and their physicians who are in need of additional treatment options for the prevention of migraine," said Sean Harper, MD, executive vice president of Research and Development for Amgen, which shares the licensing rights to Aimovig with Novartis.

The effectiveness of Aimovig for the prevention of migraine was evaluated in three clinical trials, which found that patients experienced one to 2.5 fewer migraine days per month compared to those who took a placebo. The most common side effects were irritation at the injection site and constipation. 

Like many specialized drugs used to treat chronic conditions, Aimovig comes with a hefty price tag. Amgen says the drug will cost about $6,900 a year, or $575 for each monthly dose.

Out-of-pocket costs will vary for patients depending on their insurance. Amgen has a co-pay program for Aimovig that could reduce the cost to as little as $5 per month for eligible patients.


The company says Aimovig will be available to patients within one week.

"Aimovig offers self-administration with proven efficacy across a spectrum of patients, including in those who have previously tried other preventive therapies without success," said Stewart  Tepper, MD, professor of neurology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. "Importantly, in clinical trials, Aimovig patients were able to start and stay on therapy – with a discontinuation rate of two percent due to adverse events – and experienced sustained migraine prevention."

Migraine is thought to affect a billion people worldwide and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can also cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound. Women are three times more likely to suffer from migraine than men.

About one-third of migraine sufferers can predict the onset of a migraine because it is preceded by an aura – a sensory or visual disturbances that appear as flashing lights, zig-zag lines or a temporary loss of vision. People with migraine tend to have recurring attacks, triggered by stress, hormonal changes, bright or flashing lights, lack of food or sleep, and diet.

Amgen and Novartis expect Aimovig to be approved in the European Union in the next few months. Amgen holds the sales rights for Aimovig in the United States, Canada and Japan, while Novartis will sell the drug in Europe and the rest of the world.

Growing Abuse of Gabapentin

By Christine Vestal, Stateline

Doctors who are cutting back on prescribing opioids increasingly are opting for gabapentin, a safer, non-narcotic drug recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By doing so, they may be putting their opioid-using patients at even greater risk.

Recently, gabapentin has started showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths in hard-hit Appalachian states. The neuropathic (nerve-related) pain reliever was involved in more than a third of Kentucky overdose deaths last year.

Drug users say gabapentin pills, known as “johnnies” or “gabbies,” which often sell for less than a dollar each, enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and when taken alone in high doses can produce a marijuana-like high.

Medical researchers stress that more study is needed to determine the role gabapentin may have played in recent overdose deaths. However, a study of heroin users in England and Wales published last fall concluded that combining opioids and gabapentin “potentially increases the risk of acute overdose death” by hampering breathing and reversing users’ tolerance to heroin and other powerful opioids.


Kentucky last year classified gabapentin as a controlled substance, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it in copious quantities and for long durations. The new classification also allows police to arrest anyone who illicitly sells the drug, although the state’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said that was not the intent of the new law.

In the last two years, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming also have moved to control the flow of gabapentin by requiring doctors and pharmacists to check a prescription drug database before prescribing it to patients to make sure they aren’t already receiving gabapentin, or some other medication that interacts with it, from another physician.

In a statement to Stateline, Pfizer communications director Steven Danehy said, “Reports of misuse and abuse with this class of medicines are limited and typically involve patients with a prior history of substance abuse, including opioids.”

The drugmaker also pledged to “continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to evaluate and monitor the safety of these medicines.”

Prescribed for Many Conditions

Approved by the FDA in 1993 for the treatment of epilepsy and the nerve pain associated with shingles, gabapentin is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A generic form of the drug has been available since 2004 and is now sold by several other companies as well.

Gabapentin is now one of the most popular prescription drugs in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the 10th-most-prescribed medication in 2016. Its more expensive cousin, pregabalin, sold as Lyrica and also made by Pfizer, was the eighth best-selling.

Many doctors recommend gabapentin to patients for a long list of disorders, including hot flashes, migraines, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and spinal injuries. Some doctors also prescribe it for anxiety and insomnia.

Now, research is underway to determine whether gabapentin may be effective as a treatment for alcoholism.

Already, it is widely used to ease the symptoms of drug and alcohol detoxification. And addiction specialists routinely use gabapentin to manage pain in people who are either addicted or at risk of addiction to opioids and other substances.

Alone, high doses of gabapentin have not been found to affect breathing. The vast majority of gabapentin deaths, about 4 in 5, also involved opioids, according to the journal Addiction.

People who stop taking the medication abruptly, however, can suffer withdrawal symptoms such as trembling, sweats and agitation.

In February, Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb said the agency was reviewing the misuse of gabapentin and, for now, had determined no action was necessary. Similarly, the CDC has not issued a warning about gabapentin, nor has the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Editor's note: the CDC opioid guidelines recommend gabapentin without any mention of the risk of abuse or overdose associated with the drug, or of possible side effects such as weight gain, anxiety and mood disorders.)

Early Signs of Abuse

In Kentucky, Ingram said it has been clear to police and pharmacists for the last three or four years that gabapentin was becoming an increasingly popular street drug. “People were seeking early refills, claiming they lost their prescriptions and openly conducting transactions in parking lots outside of drug stores,” he said.

But since it wasn’t a controlled substance, nothing was done about it. That’s likely to start changing with the new law, he said.

“Misuse of gabapentin is just one more collateral effect of the opioid epidemic,” said Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. When one drug becomes less available, drug users historically seek out alternatives, he said. “What is most surprising is the sheer magnitude of its use.”

The share of Appalachian drug users who reported using gabapentin to get high increased nearly 30-fold from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Paul Earley, an addiction doctor practicing in Georgia and a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said, “We knew that a small subset of our addiction patients would abuse gabapentin.” But he said it wasn’t until 2016, when Ohio sounded an alarm about the drug’s association with overdose deaths, that addiction doctors started taking the problem more seriously.

“For years, we considered gabapentin to be ‘good for what ails you,’” Earley said. “But I’m much more cautious than I used to be. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the opioid epidemic, it’s that we need to rethink how we prescribe drugs we once assumed were safe.”

This is story is republished with permission by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Should Gabapentin Be a Controlled Substance?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should consider scheduling gabapentin (Neurontin) as a controlled substance, according to researchers who studied the recreational use of the drug in Kentucky.

Gabapentin is a nerve medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, migraines, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids.

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

But drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

"People are looking for other drugs to substitute for opioids, and gabapentin has filled that place for some," said Rachel Vickers Smith, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Nursing. “Some have said it gives them a high similar to opioids. It had been easy to get a prescription for gabapentin and it's very cheap."


Vickers Smith and her colleagues recruited 33 people from Appalachian Kentucky who used gabapentin recreationally and asked them about their drug use. Many reported they started taking gabapentin over 10 years earlier for a legitimate medical condition, such as pain and anxiety. Over time, they started using the drug to help them relax, sleep and get high.

“Focus group responses highlighted the low cost of gabapentin for the purpose of getting high and noted increasing popularity in the community, particularly over the last 2 years. Gabapentin was a prominent drug of abuse in two cohorts of the primarily opioid-using individuals. Providers should be aware of gabapentin’s abuse potential, and a reexamination of the need for scheduling is warranted,” researchers reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to classify gabapentin as a controlled substance, which makes it more difficult for the medication to be prescribed. Ohio’s Substance Abuse Monitoring Network also issued an alert warning of gabapentin misuse across the state.

‘Snake Oil of the 20th Century’

Gabapentin was first approved by the FDA in 1993 and sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A few years later, it was so widely prescribed that a top Pfizer executive called gabapentin “the snake oil of the twentieth century” in an email. The company was later fined hundreds of millions of dollars for promoting Neurontin’s off-label use.

"Early on, it was assumed to have no abuse potential," says Vickers Smith. "There's a need to examine it in further detail, especially if prescribing it is going to be encouraged."

Federal health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica).

"Our preliminary findings show that abuse of gabapentinoids doesn't yet appear to be widespread, but use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said last week at a conference on opioid prescribing. "We're concerned that abuse and misuse of these drugs may result in serious adverse events such as respiratory depression and death. We want to understand changes in how patients are using these medications."

Gottlieb said FDA investigators are looking at websites and social media where opioid users discuss their use of gabapentinoids.

"We know we need to investigate and respond to signs of abuse as soon as signals emerge. We need to get ahead of these problems," he said.

Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while Lyrica is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for addiction and abuse.  

New Hope for Hard-to-Treat Migraine Patients

Amgen and Novartis have announced promising results from a Phase III clinical trial of an injectable new migraine drug called Aimovig (erenumab).

In a study of 246 patients with episodic migraine, significantly more patients injected with Aimovig had at least a 50 percent reduction in the number of monthly migraine days compared to a placebo. The study was the first of its kind to include hard-to-treat patients who have tried and failed at least two other migraine medications due to lack of efficacy or intolerable side effects.


"We've purposely designed a clinical program for Aimovig that examined a broad spectrum of migraine patients, ranging from those who have never tried a preventive treatment to patients who have tried and failed such treatments," said Sean Harper, MD, executive vice president of Research and Development at Amgen.

"These data in patients with multiple treatment failures, who are not only considered difficult to treat but also have few options available, add to the consistent body of evidence for Aimovig.”

Aimovig belongs to a new class of medication – known as fully human monoclonal antibodies -- that target and block receptors in the brain where migraines are thought to originate. It is designed to be administered once a month with a self-injection device for migraine prevention.

"The results add to the consistent body of evidence for erenumab (Aimovig) across the full spectrum of migraine patients, from those trying preventive medication for the first time through to those who have failed multiple therapies and have been suffering for years,” said Danny Bar-Zohar, Global Head of Neuroscience Development for Novartis.

“We look forward to making erenumab, the first targeted preventive option specifically designed for migraine, available to patients as soon as possible."

Amgen and Novartis expect the Food and Drug Administration to make a decision on Aimovig in May. The two companies will share sales rights to Aimovig in the U.S. Amgen has exclusive commercialization rights to the drug in Japan and Novartis has exclusive rights to commercialize it in Europe and the rest of world.

Migraine is thought to affect a billion people worldwide and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. It affects three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can also cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.

About half of people living with migraine are undiagnosed. Current medications to prevent migraines have been repurposed from other medical conditions, and are often associated with poor results.

Researchers Question Value of Brain Imaging

By Pat Anson, Editor

An international team of researchers is recommending against the use of brain imaging as a diagnostic test for chronic pain, saying the tests are “inappropriate and unethical.”

"It's not possible at this point in time to say with any degree of certainty that a person does or does not have chronic pain based on brain imaging," said Karen Davis, PhD, senior scientist at the Krembil Research Institute and a professor at the University of Toronto.

"The only way to truly know if someone is in pain is if they tell you because pain is subjective and it is a complex experience. No brain scan can do that."

In recent years, technological advances in brain imaging have led to an increased use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to search for brain-based biomarkers for chronic pain.

Demand for brain imaging is also growing for legal purposes, including the development of a potential “lie detector” test for chronic pain.

"Use of such tools would be inappropriate and unethical," said Davis. "This technology is not foolproof. There are vast issues of variability between people and even within a person at different times. As a result, brain imaging must not be used as a lie detector for chronic pain."

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Davis and her colleagues say brain-based biomarkers should only be used to supplement -- not replace -- a patient’s own reports of pain, even if testing is improved and valid protocols developed. Their recommendations were published in the journal Nature Review: Neurology.

"We are working towards biomarkers for chronic pain, but the goal is not as a lie detector test but rather to help provide personalized pain treatment options for patients," Davis. “People outside of the field of imaging might be disappointed, but the fact of the matter is the technology cannot be used to support or dispute a claim of chronic pain."

According to a 2015 study at the University of Michigan, one in eight visits to a doctor for a headache or migraine end up with the patient going for a brain scan. Often a doctor will order an fMRI to ease a patient’s fear that they may have a brain tumor or some other serious health problem. Doctors may also order a test to protect themselves in case of a lawsuit. About 1 to 3 percent of brain scans of patients with repeated headaches identify a cancerous growth or aneurysm.

University of Michigan researcher Brian Callaghan, MD, identified 74 neurological tests and procedures that are often unnecessary. Many involve the use of imaging.

“The two biggest areas that might be done more than they should are imaging for low back pain and imaging for headaches,” Callaghan said. “It’s a big problem and it costs a lot of money – we’re talking a billion dollars a year on just headache imaging.”

Other researchers believe brain imaging can be used as a valuable diagnostic tool. In a small study at the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers used fMRIs to discover a “brain signature” that identifies fibromyalgia with 93 percent accuracy. They found three neurological patterns in the brain that correlate with the pain hypersensitivity typically experienced with fibromyalgia.

Noah the Narwhal: A Children’s Book About Migraines

By Jennifer Kilgore, Columnist

It’s not often that children’s books and chronic pain cross paths, but that is exactly what has happened in Noah the Narwhal, a new book from author Judith Klausner and illustrator Sarah Gould.

I was introduced to Judith by my old law school roommate, who was teaching a course at Boston University on anthropology and disability. She knew the author, who suffers from chronic migraines.

“Does anyone have any media contacts in the chronic pain circuit?” Judith asked. Well, my roommate certainly knew someone. Me!

Judith is a 31-year-old artist who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and this is her first book -- ever. You’d never know that by looking at it. The book is well written, slick, colorful and filled with friendly underwater characters who are brought to life in surprisingly little time. 

The story follows Noah, a narwhal whale who suffers from migraines (and who also wears a cute little sweater). I asked Judith why she chose narwhals.

“A couple reasons. One is that I kind of like the idea of a creature that unfortunately some people don’t realize is real,” she told me. (Embarrassing truth: I didn’t know narwhals were real until last year. My husband won’t let me forget this.) 

“Also, some people don’t think migraines are real,” Judith explained. “‘Eh, you have a headache. Get over it.’ I liked that analogy. Then, there’s the visual idea of the pain of a migraine. Noah wakes up with the feeling of a horn growing into his head. So that seems convenient! You just have to turn the horn inside out!”  She laughed.

“That, and narwhals are cool. They’re the unicorns of the sea.”

The story is fairly simple: Noah lives a great life and has wonderful friends, but he also has to deal with terrible migraines that drill into his head at unexpected moments. He tries to keep up with his family commitments, his job, and his social obligations, but his pain flares keep setting him back. At first, his loved ones don’t believe the pain can be all that bad, and they say, “But you were fine yesterday!”

“Today is not yesterday,” Noah keeps telling them. (I want to get that tattooed on my wrist.)

He also has adorable metaphors like, “My head feels like it’s full of sea urchins.”


Noah frets over leaving his friends and family in the lurch, but then they remember all the times that he was there when they needed him, and all the good that Noah has brought into their lives. They realize it doesn’t matter if Noah has to deal with migraines -- they love him, no matter what.

I cried when I read it.

Noah’s story parallels the points in Judith’s life that come out so strongly in the book. “It’s definitely pretty autobiographical,” she said. “I’ve had them (migraines) pretty much my whole life.”

In elementary school, Judith’s parents noticed a pattern and had the foresight to take her to a doctor when the migraines became more frequent and were accompanied by nausea. Eventually they were popping up multiple times a week, and auras started in high school.

The migraines kept a very strict pattern, arriving promptly in the evening at 5 o’clock. They never showed up more than three days in a row, so the fourth day was always clear. Then, in college, everything went off the rails. With no daily schedule, her migraines had no schedule, either -- they decided to strike whenever they wanted, lasting days in a row. Her doctors tried her on preventatives, which caused a host of side effects.

When asked how she dealt with college (she was a studio art major at Wesleyan College), Judith replied, “Not well.” She would let one class suffer each semester, in the hopes of just getting through with her degree.

After graduating, she fell into a depression and her friendships withered, because chronic migraines (having one a day for almost three years) interfered with any work or social schedule.

“With something like a chronic pain condition, you can’t schedule around it,” Judith said. “I was finding myself not able to do these things that everyone around me was doing. I thought I wasn’t strong enough, or smart enough, or I was too lazy, that there was something wrong with me, that I was the problem. And I had a lot of self-hatred around that time.”

Then she saw a migraine specialist who told her, “You know, you’re doing really well with what you have.”

“That was a really important thing for me to hear, at a really important time for me to hear it. Someone gave me permission to stop beating myself up so much,” Judith recalled.

It was out of these experiences that Noah was created. Judith always loved sculpting, writing and picture books. As she told me, “Picture books are not just for kids, and children’s books are a medium that have the opportunity to reach people at a formative age.”

Working from her couch, Judith put long hours into Noah the Narwhal, odds and ends that equaled a full-time job, though only when her body allowed. As those of us with chronic pain know, sometimes the demands of a full-time 9-5 job are impossible, a claim to which Judith can attest. 

For the artwork, she turned to her longtime friend, Sarah Gould. Their relationship goes back more than a decade. She works as a computer programmer on the west coast and earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture, but always wanted to work as an illustrator. The two of them thought that some sort of collaboration would be a fun long-distance project.


Sarah’s soft, precious, approachable artwork is the perfect complement to Judith’s words. Even when she was writing, Judith said she was imagining Sarah’s illustrations. 

Noah the Narwhal works because it is a simple story distilled into even simpler parts. Pain isn’t complicated. Doctors, medications, lab visits, insurance bills and prognoses -- those are complicated. At its core, though, pain is a feeling, a reaction, a response to stimuli. It’s a horn drilling into your head.

Judith understood this perfectly when writing the story. That’s why it works. As she said, “The more we can do to help people realize they aren’t alone, by understanding (chronic pain), the better.”

And it would do us all well to remember, today isn’t yesterday.

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Noah the Narwhal is featured on PNN"s Suggested Reading list.

Jennifer Kain Kilgore is an attorney editor for both and the Association of International Law Firm Networks. She has chronic back and neck pain after two car accidents.

You can read more about Jennifer on her blog, Wear, Tear, & Care.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Cannabis Formula Just as Effective as Migraine Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

An experimental medication made from marijuana is just as effective as a widely used pharmaceutical drug in the treatment and prevention of migraine, according to two new studies by Italian researchers.

In the first study, a research team led by Dr. Maria Nicolodi found that combining two cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), in a 200mg dose reduced acute pain by 55 percent in a group of 48 migraine sufferers. The medication, which was taken orally, contained 19% THC and 9% CBD.

In a second phase of the study, researchers then gave a group of 79 chronic migraine patients either the 200 mg THC-CBD combination or a 25mg dose of amitriptyline – a tricyclic antidepressant commonly used to treat migraine.

After three months of daily treatment, researchers found that the group taking the THC-CBD combination had a 40.4% reduction in migraine attacks, which was slightly better than the amitriptyline group (40.1%). 

The cannabinoids reduced migraine pain intensity by an average of 43.5 percent. Female patients also reported a decline in stomach ache, colitis and musculoskeletal pain.

"We were able to demonstrate that cannabinoids are an alternative to established treatments in migraine prevention,” said Nicoldi, who recently presented her findings at the 3rd Congress of the European Academy of Neurology in Amsterdam.

Migraine is thought to affect a billion people worldwide and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. It affects three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can also cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Previous research has also found that cannabis is effective in treating migraines. A 2016 study by the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado found that inhaled and ingested cannabis significantly reduced the number of headaches in a group of migraine sufferers. Inhalation appeared to provide the fastest results, while the edible cannabis took longer to provide pain relief.

Hormone Changes Trigger Migraines in Girls

By Pat Anson, Editor

Changes in female hormones may trigger migraines in adolescent girls, but the frequency and severity of headaches depends on a girl's age and stage of puberty, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center evaluated 34 girls between the ages of 8 and 17 who suffered from migraine.

They found that higher levels of the hormone progesterone were associated with fewer headaches in older teenagers, while lower levels of the hormone resulted in more headaches. In younger girls, the opposite appears to be true.

The findings are published online in Cephalalgia, the journal of the International Headache Society.

"Ours is the first study to show that migraine headaches might also be influenced by female hormones in girls with migraine," says Vincent Martin, MD, a professor and co-director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at the University of Cincinnati’s Gardner Neuroscience Institute.

"While low and declining estrogen levels are thought to precipitate migraine in adult women, we found that progesterone (appeared) to be the most important trigger factor in these young girls. However, this effect seemed to differ depending on the age of the girls and their pubertal development."

Migraine affects about three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.  

About 10 percent of school age children in the U.S. suffer from migraine, according to the Migraine Research Foundation (MRF). As adolescence approaches, the incidence of migraine increases rapidly in girls and by age 17 about 23 percent of girls have experienced migraine.

About two thirds of adult women will develop "menstrual migraine" -- migraine attacks that occur shortly before or during menstrual bleeding. Low and declining levels of estrogen are thought to trigger menstrual migraines. Prior to this new study the contribution of female hormones to migraine was unknown in girls and at what age they begin.

"There is a dramatic change in the way that female hormones affect migraine that occurs during puberty," said Martin. "Prior to puberty, progesterone has little effect on migraine, but after puberty high progesterone levels are associated with fewer headaches and low progesterone levels have more headache."

Girls aged 16 to 17 in the study had a 42 percent chance of having a headache when their progesterone levels were low, but when levels of the hormone were high the chance of headache dropped to 24 percent.

In the 8 to 11 age group, there was 15 percent chance of suffering from migraine or headache when levels of progesterone were low, but a 20 percent chance when high levels of progesterone

"Our study suggests that female hormones play an important role in triggering headaches in young girls and that their response to hormones seems to change at the time of puberty," says Martin. "Since migraine commonly begins during puberty in girls one might ask whether a change in response to hormones might represent the initiating factor for migraine in some girls -- kind of like the ‘big bang’ theory of migraine."

Common Medical Conditions Linked to Fibromyalgia

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

People with fibromyalgia are more likely than others in the general population to have other chronic conditions. But doctors have yet to figure out why fibromyalgia often coexists with other diseases – what’s known as “comorbidity.”

Fibromyalgia sufferers often have migraines, autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. Having multiple overlapping conditions isn’t easy, and increases physical pain and suffering. 

It is important for all of us with fibromyalgia to learn about these conditions and their symptoms.  Being knowledgeable about them will help us and our medical providers better control our symptoms, pain and overall health. 

Here are several common medical conditions faced by people who also have fibromyalgia:

Migraines:  Research indicates migraine sufferers are more likely to have fibromyalgia. One study from 2011, published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, suggests migraine headaches may even trigger fibromyalgia. Researchers believe preventing migraine headaches could potentially stop or slow down the development of fibromyalgia in some people, or minimize symptoms in fibromyalgia sufferers.

"These results suggest different levels of central sensitization in patients with migraine, fibromyalgia or both conditions and a role for migraine as a triggering factor for FMS. Prevention of headache chronification in migraine patients would thus appear crucial also for preventing the development of fibromyalgia in predisposed individuals or its worsening in co-morbid patients,” Italian researchers reported.

Autoimmune Diseases:  In about 25% of cases, fibromyalgia co-exists with an autoimmune condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Two serious autoimmune diseases that may accompany fibromyalgia are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus. 

Other studies show at least 20% of RA patients also have fibromyalgia, but researchers have yet to understand the connection. The pain of RA can trigger fibromyalgia flares, worsen pain and symptoms, and vice versa. 

In 2016, researchers in the UK tried to determine whether RA patients who also had fibromyalgia had lower levels of joint inflammation.  The results of their study, published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, determined RA patients with fibromyalgia had "widespread soft tissue tenderness but fewer clinically inflamed joints, have higher disease activity scores but may have lower levels of synovial [joint] inflammation."

The researchers suggested that different approaches to treatment may benefit these patients.

"These patients are less likely to respond to escalation of inflammation-suppressing therapy and may be more suitable for other forms of treatment including alternative means of pain control and psychological support,” they wrote.

It is also not uncommon for lupus and fibromyalgia to co-occur.  However, fibromyalgia is no more common in lupus than other autoimmune diseases, according to researchers out of the National Data Bank for Rheumatic Diseases

Depression and Anxiety: People with fibromyalgia frequently experience depression and anxiety.

According to a 2011 report published in the journal Pain Research and Treatment, 90% of fibromyalgia patients have depressive symptoms at least once, and 86% of those people may suffer from a major depressive disorder. Depression and fibromyalgia occur at the same time in at least 40% cases -- a connection that researchers are still trying to understand.

The prevalence of anxiety symptoms in fibromyalgia patients ranges from 13% to about 71%,  according to Portuguese researchers. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A majority of fibromyalgia patients – up to 70% - also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a digestive disorder characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

Sleep Disturbances:  Most people with fibromyalgia report problems sleeping.  No matter how long they sleep, theyrarely feel rested. Restless leg syndrome, non-restorative sleep, and sleep apnea are all sleep issues associated with fibromyalgia.

People with fibromyalgia are more likely to have restless leg syndrome (RLS) than others in the general population, according to a study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). RLS is a disorder that causes uncomfortable feelings in the legs and/or the urge to keep moving the legs. The AASM study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, finds 33% of people with fibromyalgia also have RLS.  

Up to 90% of fibromyalgia patients experience non-restorative sleep, a feeling of not getting refreshing sleep, despite appearing to have slept.

A 2013 study published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology reports that 61% of men with fibromyalgia suffer from sleep apnea, as well as 32% of women. Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where breathing is interrupted during sleep.  

Living with Fibromyalgia and Co-Existing Conditions                 

In addition to suffering from fibromyalgia, I also suffer from three co-existing conditions -- rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and anxiety.  Having both RA and fibromyalgia, I have struggled with more severe symptoms, including muscle and joint pain and cognitive issues.  I know dealing with this debilitating pain results in both depression and anxiety, and both have been frequent visitors to my life.   

I am aware of the effect multiple conditions have on my well-being, and work hard at improving my overall health. I know I can still have a good quality of life, despite the many obstacles that fibromyalgia and its multiple co-occurring conditions present. 

There are other conditions linked to fibromyalgia that I have not mentioned, but they are still significant. Understanding how fibromyalgia and these conditions coexist may someday help researchers develop better treatments for fibromyalgia. 

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.