January 14, 2011

Migraine sufferers know the symptoms all too well - a pounding headache, nausea, vomiting and/or sensitivity to light. For nearly 30 million Americans, when migraine strikes life comes to a debilitating halt, and nothing else matters but making the pain stop.

Dr. Carol Foster's mission is to do just that - to help patients understand migraine and enjoy a better quality of life without pain.

"Migraine is not just a bad headache, it's an inherited brain disease," said Foster, a board certified neurologist with Neurological Services at CAMC, who has extensive training in treating headaches. "Like asthma or diabetes, migraine is a chronic medical disorder."

As one of only two headache specialists in West Virginia, Foster sees how migraine impacts patient's lives every day. She has also experienced it firsthand as a migraine sufferer herself, which led to her life-long study of understanding the disease and helping others manage it.

"Migraine is a brain thing, not a pain thing, meaning headaches are caused by a problem with the brain chemical serotonin," Foster said. "A bad marriage or a bad hair day doesn't cause headache; lack of serotonin causes headache. And like asthma or diabetes, it's a disease that can be managed with lifestyle changes. The key is making a complicated brain process something people can understand so they can become empowered to take control of it."

Certain foods and environmental factors such as stress, lack of sleep or missed meals can trigger a headache.

"Just as an asthma attack can be triggered by a cat for someone allergic to cat hair, a migraine attack can be triggered by a missed meal or a late night," Foster said. "Being aware of your triggers helps you avoid them and control the frequency of attacks."

Foster works with patients to find out what triggers their migraine and how those triggers can be avoided.

"One of the biggest culprits is food additives," she said. "It's critical that people change their diet, reduce food additives and bring the neurochemicals in their brain back in balance with a balanced diet and regular exercise. Controlling the biological stress response is the key to controlling migraine."

Foster said migraine can be easily treated, yet less than half of migraine sufferers have been diagnosed or treated, in part, due to medication overuse.

"Migraine is biological, not psychological. Just taking a pill when you have a headache does not treat the cause of the headache. You have to treat the disease."

Foster said many people don't understand that the medications they take for headache may actually cause more headaches. Frequent use of prescription and nonprescription pain pills, sinus pills, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills and tranquilizers often result in a cycle of headaches.

"Giving pain pills to a person with headaches is like giving cookies to a diabetic. You feel better for a little while, but it only makes the problem worse," Foster said. "You break the cycle by understanding what's causing the headache and changing the behaviors that contribute to it. When you understand the disease and make changes in your life, often you can control your headaches and improve your quality of life."

Foster says her approach to treating migraine is much like that of treating any other chronic disease, meaning patients don't come in for a "quick fix" just when they have a headache.

"In between attacks of migraine you feel fine, so it's natural to want to deal with the problem when you experience the attack and ignore the condition when you are symptom-free. The problem with this is you're simply treating the symptoms and not the disease."

Foster has created a comprehensive "brain cell fitness program" where patients learn how to manage their disease and reduce the frequency of their headaches through a combination of approaches, including lifestyle changes and medication, if needed.

"It's not always easy, but being headache-free can be life changing and well worth the effort," Foster said.

For more information call Neurological Services at CAMC at (304) 388-6620.

Sources: "Migraine: Your Questions Answered" and "Gotta Headache?" by Carol A. Foster, MD  


Nearly 30 million Americans suffer from migraine, with women being affected three times more often than men.

Migraine is most commonly experienced between the ages of 15 and 55, and 70 to 80 percent of sufferers have a family history of migraine.

Migraine is often misdiagnosed as sinus headache or tension headache.

Many factors can trigger migraine attacks, such as alteration of sleep-wake cycle; missing or delaying a meal; daily or near daily use of medications designed for relieving headache attacks; bright lights, certain foods; and excessive noise. Migraine characteristics can include:

  • Pain typically on one side of the head
  • Pain that has a pulsating or throbbing quality
  • Moderate to intense pain affecting daily activities
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Attacks lasting four to 72 hours, sometimes longer
  • Visual disturbances or aura
  • Exertion, such as climbing stairs, makes headache worse

Talk to your family doctor if you are medicat­ing a headache more than four days a month.


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