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.