Tag Archives: headaches

Headache-B-Gone: My Visits to the Chiropractor

I’ve written a lot about the various episodes of pain I’ve suffered (chronicling my daily pain, for example, and how it’s affected my personality over time). A large part of that pain has come in the various forms of headaches, which I’ve suffered throughout my life. My teen years were dominated by eye-piercing migraines that literally had me screaming in the middle of the night, and my early to mid-twenties were tormented with stress-related blood pressure and tension headaches (and, as I discovered in 2011, pain relating to severely infected wisdom teeth as well).

However, over the last couple of years, a new type of headache had arisen to claim the crown which migraines and blood pressure seemed to have relinquished at last…and this one seemed the most resistant to treatment of them all. Well, at least until the chiropractor got to it. 😀

Symptoms: Dull Ice-Pick Through the Temple, and Exhaustion

I thought I had seen the last of my headache problems when I had my wisdom teeth out in November 2011. But the pain only gave me a brief few months’ respite, and then returned.

This pain, however, was a little different from the burning-nerve headaches I’d had with my wisdom teeth. I wasn’t exactly lying in bed clutching my head and crying, but it was still head pain, and it exhausted me. It seemed I just couldn’t get enough sleep, and as soon as I woke up, my head began to scream at me again. But I was also wakeful during nights because I dreaded laying my head to the pillow–it seemed that was when my headaches would begin, dulled only by falling asleep. It was a strange paradox.

It became slowly worse, as 2012 ended and 2013 began; I found myself slipping back into the routine of “doing only what I needed to do” because trying to do any more left me unspeakably tired. And eventually, the headache, which resembled a dull ice pick being slowly tapped into my skull by my own pulse, dominated every day and every night. It was a never-ending pain–it was not “the worst headache I’d ever had,” but it just DIDN’T STOP.

No medicine would touch this pain, either; it laughed off Tylenol, shrugged off Aleve, and bowed only momentarily to Advil and Advil Migraine before flaring right back up again. Even my prescribed muscle relaxer, Flexeril, could only tame it for a few hours before it was back bad as ever. The headache might switch sides of my head 4 or 5 times a day, but it was CONSTANT; it was a siege, a siege I was rapidly losing.

By the end of July 2013, I had had ENOUGH. I felt as if my life were being controlled by the headache; my daily and weekly plans revolved around “whether my head hurt or not.” And I was NOT going to live my life like this yet again, not after what I went through in 2011 with my teeth. I didn’t know what to do, other than to start seeing specialists, since my primary care doctor was just as stumped by these headaches as I was.

The Chiropractor Visit: One More Step before the Neurologist

On the encouragement and recommendations of a couple of friends, I finally made an appointment to see a local chiropractor on the last Friday in July. (That morning, I woke up with yet another headache tapping away at my temple, and I was glad–I wanted the chiropractor to see the headache in action, so they could more accurately see what was happening.)

Once I got to the appointment and was taken back into the office, I described the headache pain in as full detail as I could; the chiropractor listened and nodded, seeming to understand all the little pieces of information I was offering. As I paused, enduring yet another surge of pain, she asked, “Your headache is on the left side of your head, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback by this; I had not told her which side of my head the pain was on, only that I was experiencing a headache at the moment. I hadn’t even made a motion toward my head at all. But she was right–it was currently tap-tap-tapping away at my left temple. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “But how did you know?”

“Your left trapezius muscle is visibly swollen–that usually means the muscle is in spasm,” she replied, and she showed me exactly where it was; it was the muscle joining my neck and shoulder, which was not only tender to touch, but was hotter than the surrounding skin. “I’m not 100% sure that this is the sole cause of your headache,” she said as she examined the trapezius muscle, “but this is certainly part of it. After the X-ray, we’ll know more. In the meantime, let’s get you on the muscle stimulator and try to relieve this muscle spasm.”

The attendants then put me on this mythical-seeming “muscle stimulator,” a simple-looking device with two little paddles which were laid on either side of my neck where it joined my shoulders. Within only 8 minutes, this treatment had my left shoulder feeling almost completely loose and free, and the headache was GONE. (The sensation of the muscle spasm breaking apart felt like peeling apart stuck-together vinyl; the very small electric current running through the muscle fibers felt like thousands of tiny fingers massaging under my skin.) Then they took an X-ray, and I was finished with my new-patient appointment, already feeling much relieved.

The Result: The “Headache” Wasn’t a Headache at All!

Once the results of my X-ray came back, the last of the mystery was resolved. My neck vertebrae, as seen in the X-ray, were clearly curving forward over my chest rather than being settled more atop my shoulders (this was likely from years of hunching over the computer keyboard). Over time, my trapezius muscles, which connected my overextended neck to my shoulders, began to spasm from being stretched into an unnatural position.

The spasms became gradually worse and worse, until the inflamed muscles began to choke the nerve endings leading up my neck and ending in my temples. Presto–a “headache” that had nothing to do with my head at all! And this was more than a simple “tension” headache, too; this was the result of severe muscle spasms that simply could not be alleviated without treatment (I should know, I tried).

Where I Stand Now

Armed with this information, I began an aggressive 3-times-a-week course of treatment in early August, consisting of time on the muscle stimulator and spinal adjustments, all to help pull the neck, shoulders, and upper spine back into happy alignment. This, plus some assigned chiropractic stretches to be done twice daily, and some home care advice regarding treatment of inflamed muscles, has been my treatment plan.

But I am glad to report that after several weeks, I am no longer suffering quite so many of those exhausting headaches. (There have been a couple of bad ones, but now they pop up every couple of weeks or so, rather than multiple times a day!) The chiropractors are hopeful that in time, I can come in whenever I need to rather than having to come in 2 or 3 times a week (I’m currently down to 2 treatments per week and doing fairly well).

This has taken a lot of work and a lot of rethinking on how I lead my life (no more extended writing/coding sessions while sitting hunched over the keyboard, for instance). I have to be a lot more careful with my neck and shoulders to prevent them going into spasm; for instance, I’ve had to toss aside one of the two pillows I used to sleep on, realizing that sleeping on two stacked pillows was angling my neck at such a strange angle that the muscles went into spasm almost automatically. (No wonder I couldn’t sleep!!)

Going forward, I will likely have to continue doing the stretches for years to prevent future headaches. But hey, if a 10-minute series of stretches twice a day keeps me from suffering for days at a time, I’ll do it! 😀

“Silent” Migraines: They DO Exist

Confused by the title of this article? I was just as confused when I first began to realize I suffered silent migraines. I didn’t even know quite what they were until I began doing some migraine research on my own, and discovered this strange sub-type of migraine headaches, which has only recently been researched.

How Regular Migraines and “Silent” Migraines Compare

Migraines vary a lot from person to person, and each migraine sufferer can even experience various types of migraines. Most migraines follow a basic pattern like the following:

  • Prodrome phase, or the “Watch out, a migraine is coming!” phase. During prodrome, you can become more irritable, confused, or experience weird physical symptoms of sickness out of nowhere. 1 out of 4 people with migraines have this, sometimes even a full day before the migraine officially hits.
  • Aura phase, characterized by just plain weirdness going on in your senses. You may see flashes of color or lightning-bolt patterns zigzagging across your vision; you might hear random high pitches or strange noises that aren’t in the actual environment. You might even have some problems with speaking or writing, though not as pronounced as stroke victims. 1 in 5 people with migraines have this, and it usually lasts about an hour.
  • Pain phase, also known as the “please kill me now” phase. Throbbing pain, usually on one side of your head, sometimes death-gripping a vein in your forehead and sometimes stabbing into your eye, is common. Plus, the intense head pain can trigger your stomach into nausea, and everything in your environment is either BRIGHT, LOUD, or both at once. Basically, it sidelines you from your life for however long it decides to last. (Oh, and if you didn’t take medicine during the Prodrome or Aura phase, you have to ride the Pain phase out on your own–any medicine just flat won’t work once the pain is in full swing. This is what a lot of non-migraine sufferers just don’t get. X_x)
  • Resolution phase, or “thank God it’s over.” After an event like this, you’ll be very tired and cranky for a good while, sometimes even a full day after the migraine finally decides to vacate the premises of your head.

But silent migraines are a strange sub-breed–strange in that the sufferer can experience prodrome, aura, and resolution, but never experiences pain.

Symptoms of a Silent Migraine

At first, I was overjoyed to learn that some of my migraines could in fact be silent. “You mean I can have a normal life occasionally?!” I thought. “Heck, if I didn’t have to go through all that pain, I’d be happy to live with a ‘silent migraine!'”

Well, I thought that at least until I started looking at the symptom list:

Physical Symptoms

diarrhea
nausea
vomiting
food cravings
loss of appetite
thirst
increased urination
chills
fatigue
vertigo

Emotional/Mental Symptoms

confusion
irritability
euphoria
amnesia

Aura Symptoms

wavy or jagged lines, dots, or spots in your vision
flashing lights
blind spots
cloudy/blurry vision
tunnel vision
disruptions in hearing/hearing loss
auditory hallucinations
distortions in smell or taste
numbness
pins-and-needles sensations
other unusual body sensations
difficulty remembering or saying a word
other language difficulties

Sources for this table: WebMD.com; Migraine.com

When I read this list, I was shocked: so many of the conditions I have had to become accustomed to experiencing, either with head pain or without, are all over this list. The most random food cravings or complete loss of appetite, with no stomach disturbance apparent; difficulty remembering words, so rampant that I thought something was wrong with me mentally; pins-and-needles feelings all over my body, for no reason. Most if not all of these symptoms precede my head pain, but even when they don’t, I end up absolutely exhausted afterwards, just like I’ve had a migraine.

It’s almost easier to have the head pain than not have it, in some ways, because these symptoms by themselves don’t make much sense. Saying “I have a migraine” is at least understandable to most folks, even if they have the blissful ignorance of never experiencing migraines for themselves. But saying “Hey, I have a migraine–well, sorta, kinda–well, actually, I’m not having a headache per se, but I have all the other symptoms…yeah…?” Not only is it a headache to try to explain, but it sounds suspiciously like a cop-out excuse. Let me assure you, it is NOT.

Why Are Silent Migraines “Silent?”

People have thought for years that migraines were just the result of blood flow being squeezed off to one part of the brain–that the sudden contraction of a vein, followed by the normal amount of blood trying to stuff itself through the resulting bottleneck, creates the pain. Blood gridlock, in other words.

However, now some new research involving fMRI (functional MRI) machines has uncovered a neurological component to migraines. Basically, the nerve cells in various bits of the brain get WAY overstimulated right before a migraine event, and then sink WAY down in activity. The neighboring blood vessels swell up, or dilate, to deliver more blood to the overstimulated nerve cells–and a migraine is born.

This heightened nerve activity is what causes all the weird visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations present in a classic migraine’s Aura phase. But sometimes, apparently, the heightened nerve activity happens, but doesn’t trigger the blood vessels to dilate…which results in a silent migraine. The brain is still just as bothered and irritable as it would be during a regular migraine, but there’s no physical blood-vessel pain to go with it.

A Silent Migraine By Any Other Name is Just as Weird

Silent migraines can pop up in anyone’s brain, no matter if you’ve had regular painful migraines or not. Silent migraines are also called:

  • Acephalgic migraine
  • Isolated visual migraine
  • Amigranous migraine
  • Late-onset migraine accompaniment (for people over 40 who suddenly get their first migraine aura symptoms)
  • Migraine dissocie (French for a “migraine disassociated” from pain)
  • Migraine equivalent/migraine variant
  • Typical aura without headache

Sources for this list: Migraine.com; Headaches.About.com

(Note: Ocular migraine is often a painless migraine with weird visual symptoms, but nothing auditory or sensory. Silent migraines run the gamut of physical symptoms of migraine, just without the pain.)

Whatever you want to call it. it’s just plain weird. And it could be occurring in your own head a lot more often than you realize, especially if any or all of those symptoms in the above list seem familiar.

How to Treat a Silent Migraine

As I did research for this very article, I began to wonder if I wasn’t walking around with a constant silent migraine, which occasionally morphed into its bigger badder sibling when I wasn’t looking. I had about grown used to walking around feeling like gum scraped off somebody’s shoe–but what if there was a way to stop it?

First of all, I suggest that if you’re experiencing anything like these symptoms, with head pain or without, you need to get checked out by a doctor. Occasionally, these symptoms can warn of more serious things like trans-ischemic attacks (aka “mini-strokes”) or epileptic seizures.

However, if you’ve gotten checked and the doctor tells you it’s migraines, silent or otherwise, then here are some of the best treatments:

  • Take your prescribed medication as quick as you can. Remember what I said about medicine not working if you take it too late in the Pain phase? Yeah.
  • Be careful what medication you take. My migraines are made worse by caffeine, for instance, so I have to avoid medicine that includes caffeine in its pill, like Excedrin Migraine or Bayer Migraine. Finding a med that works for your personal migraines is about 50/50 trial/error and luck.
  • Get to a quiet, restful place with dim or no lighting, and lie down if possible.
  • If you can stand the noise and light, turn on some light entertainment to take your mind off the pain. Most people suggest absolutely dark and silent rooms, but I find that I go absolutely bonkers with boredom, lying there with only my pain to focus on till either the medication works or I drift off to fitful sleep. Thus, I usually choose a favorite comedy DVD, turn the volume a little lower than normal, and shut my eyes to listen to it. The laughter helps, as long as you don’t laugh so hard that you make your head hurt worse!
  • Most people say their migraines are helped by sleep; if you feel like you could drift right off, go ahead. Just make sure that your neck is not in a weird position, otherwise, you could end up with a nasty tension headache moving in where your migraine left off. (Speaking from experience here…ugh.)
  • When your migraine is over, do your best to get some good rest, eat well (especially if nausea left you without an appetite before), and de-stress. Lack of sleep and food plus excess stress pretty much equals a migraine. This can be very difficult to achieve in this day and time, but if you don’t want to be sidelined for days with a migraine, it might be worth it to try these tips.

I find, generally, that my silent migraine symptoms are a little less in intensity than my painful migraine symptoms. Nevertheless, these symptoms are nothing to play around with. If you can get those little nerve cells to quit misbehaving a little sooner, you’ll feel much better; the above treatments, which are usually for “classic” migraines, actually do work for silent ones too!

For Further Information

Silent Migraine @ Migraine.com
What Are Silent Migraines? @ WebMD.com
What is a Silent Migraine? @ Headaches.about.com
Acephalgic Migraine @ Wikipedia

Wisdom Teeth and Headaches Gone

I had my wisdom teeth extracted on November 3rd…as in, 10 days ago.

I bet you’re wondering why you’ve seen so much more of me on the Internet since then, instead of seeing me drop off the face of the Internet. One reason: the headaches I have had for EIGHT MONTHS are finally gone.

Symptom: The Burning-Sensation Headache

I started having burning-sensation, throbbing headaches in my temples around April of 2011, and I thought it was just another one of my body’s quirks. Since I’ve suffered migraines, blood-pressure headaches, menstrual headaches, and tension headaches throughout much of my life, I figured this was just another headache to add to the mix.

But this type of headache was odd. It behaved somewhat like a migraine, except misplaced–it didn’t occur in my eye or in the veins in my forehead like all my other migraines, but it made me feel nauseous and sensitive to light, and left me with no energy. And yet, it behaved something like a tension or cluster headache, too; my neck and shoulders stayed tense all the time, and it felt as though the headache rocketed back and forth along the trigeminal nerve. But that wasn’t all: if I pressed a fingertip to the source of pain at my temple, I could feel what felt like a corded blood vessel, pulsing and pounding just like a blood-pressure headache. It seemed that this headache had multiple personality disorder.

I suffered these headaches, often up to 10 times a month for 2 or 3 days at a time, for seven months; they were untreatable by most medicines, so I had to suffer through them. By the time October rolled around, I had had inexplicable trouble sleeping (going to bed at 5 AM and waking up at 1 PM, anyone?) combined with the headaches, and all throughout the month of October I felt as if I was too tired to live my life anymore. Pain was constantly with me, in the burning of my temples, and my life had shrunk to what I could manage versus what I wanted to do.

The Health (and Dental) Epiphany

To add insult to injury, at the end of October, my bottom right wisdom tooth began to act up–it and its three brethren had been playing hide-and-seek with me since I was 20, painfully bursting through the gums over a period of weeks, staying out for a few months, and then partially covering themselves back over with gum tissue. I figured this was another episode of the same stuff, so I did nothing about it, just switched over to eating softer food for a few days until the gum quit complaining.

But that was the odd thing: it didn’t stop complaining. In fact, it got worse, so much so that my jaw ached and it caused another one of those burning-sensation, normal-life-ceasing headaches. In desperation, I called my dentist, and they scheduled me for an appointment later in the week.

When they saw me, they first did an X-ray to see what might be the trouble; the X-ray results came back a few minutes later, and the dentist (an old pharmacy-school friend of my parents’) said, “Looks like your wisdoms are infected.”

Come again? INFECTED? How the heck could TEETH become infected?

But infected they indeed were–he showed me on the X-ray where the infection in each wisdom tooth had eaten into the jawbone, showing up as a small black spot behind each wisdom tooth. Ugghhh. I was sick at hearing that, but even sicker was the thought that the infection might have been going on much longer than I thought.

Out, Out, Darned Teeth!

An appointment was quickly made with an oral surgeon in the same building to extract all four wisdom teeth as soon as humanly possible, after a 10-day course of antibiotics had been run through me to dispel the grave infection. And so, on November 3rd, after 13 days of worrying and lots of praying, my dad drove me to the oral surgeon’s office to have my wisdom teeth removed.

I was so nervous about the surgery that my blood pressure and pulse were well above normal–the attending nurse noticed that the blood pressure reading was 133/90-something, though I didn’t catch the pulse reading. In fact, I was so scared that my nervous quivering was literally vibrating the dental chair underneath me. It wasn’t until the oral surgeon himself came in that I began to calm down, and that was mainly because he explained everything that was going to happen, including the effects of the general anesthesia I had opted for (I wasn’t about to be conscious during this stuff).

A peace I still don’t understand descended over me, just before the oral surgeon numbed my arm to put the anesthesia in. A minute or so after the anesthesia had been administered, I began to experience my vision fluttering, like the vertical hold on an old television gone slightly off-kilter, and then…blessed nothingness.

Well, I shouldn’t say exactly “nothingness.” I did have a dream under anesthesia, about my uncle (my mom’s late older brother) talking to me. As I recall, the dream felt about 2 minutes long, and felt absolutely real…and then I awoke to the nurse asking me if I felt like walking to the wheelchair they had waiting for me. I was clumsy as ever getting up out of the dental chair, so I figured I was back to normal (LOL). My jaw and mouth were all over numb, and I felt like I had Jay Leno’s chin extending out from my face, even though I was not swollen externally much at all. (“Phantom sensations,” I think they call that.)

I recovered quickly in the office’s recovery area–the guy in the curtained-off area beside me wasn’t doing very well, bless his heart. Not sure what was going on with him, but it sounded like he was in a lot of pain. In comparison with him, my experience was a cakewalk. Dad drove me to Cook-Out, where I got a lovely vanilla milkshake (doctor’s orders)–it quickly became a vanilla-and-blood-flavored milkshake, but I was able to eat soft foods and able to talk within hours of the procedure.

The Unexpected Blessing

2 hours after the surgery, I realized something. The blinding, face-ripping headache I had experienced the night before the surgery, which had tempted me to consider tearing the trigeminal nerve out of my head to spare myself any more agony, was GONE.

Not only that, but it has stayed gone, even 10 days after the surgery. Sure, I’ve had a little bit of burny pain in my temples here and there as the wisdom tooth sockets heal and the other teeth get used to not having their pushy neighbors around, but it is NOTHING like what had dragged me down for eight months. I am left to conclude that my wisdom teeth and their infection were to blame for my headaches and inexplicable fatigue…and now that they are gone, my energy and my old personality are back. I finally have mental energy enough to play Clix with my boyfriend again, to design and update my websites again, and I feel like hanging out with people again…it’s like I got 75% of my life back by removing 100% of my wisdom teeth.

My only regret in this process? That I didn’t get my teeth seen about months ago. If I had, maybe I could have actually LIVED more of 2011 outside my house instead of lying in my bed, clutching my head and crying. Moral of the story: if you have burning-sensation headaches that you just can’t explain, your wisdom teeth (if you still have them) might be the hidden cause!