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Shine Adkins

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Amy Adkins, 39, says she has had to take off work on days when her migraines are unbearable. She and experts talk about options for relief.  

Migraine sufferers look for alternative treatments

by Kimberly Shine
Aug 28, 2013

Shine kiddies

Courtesy of Amy Adkins

Adkins' children (l-r) Benjamin, 10, James, 4, Lillian, 8.

Shine Lind 1

Kim Shine/MEDILL

Northwestern University graduate student Lindsey Peterson has suffered from severe migraines since she was nine years old.

Taking off from work is the last thing Amy Adkins ever wants to do. But, when a migraine hits, the high school English and speech teacher sometimes has no other choice.

“I hate to have to call in for a headache but they get bad,” said Adkins, 39, who teaches at Thornridge High School in Dolton.

Usually, her peers and school administrators understand her pain, but she knows there are the non-believers.

“Unless you’ve had one you’re like, ‘Whatever. You have a headache? Take a Tylenol.’”

Many people are unaware that simple pain medications won’t always work on intense migraines, said Dr. George Urban, co-director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago.

“Over the counter medications are just painkillers, so they dull the pain perception of any kind of pain, including headache,” he said. “The danger is that if you take painkillers very often, more than three times a week, you will eventually develop rebound headache - headache from the medication.”

Currently, there is no cure for migraines, a hereditary condition that affects women nearly three times more often than men. Migraine-specific medications, like Imitrex, can help stop pain as can other treatments for the more than 37 million Americans who suffer from the disease, according to the National Headache Foundation.

“(People) don’t realize it’s a full-blown disease, and it’s chronic and will probably last for a lifespan,” said Urban, also a migraine sufferer, for more than 50 years.

When Adkins was a sophomore in high school, doctor’s thought vision problems were causing her intense headaches. Then they concluded it was chronic sinus headaches, not astigmatism that sparked the painful episodes the 15 year old.

To help stop the pain, Adkins’ mother, Susan Bobbora, was ready to order an MRI when she had a chance meeting with a chiropractor. The doctor convinced her to bring Amy in for a visit.

“I went in not knowing what to expect, I went in with a migraine,” said Adkins, a mother of three living in Roselle. “You feel this big pop and it’s just like, shhhhh, you know, it almost feels like air gets let out of a tire. And the pressure goes away and it’s just gone.”

After her adjustment, she said she was afraid to move for fear the pain would return.
“She adjusted my neck and it popped louder than anything I’ve ever heard and the pain went away instantly.”

Adkins, an active high school athlete, was afraid with good reason. Her migraines, sometimes striking twice a month and lasting for days, began when she was nine years old.

“The first time I got one, I had no idea what was happening to me. I remember it because it literally feels like I got hit in the head with a bat. I mean, out of nowhere, almost drop you to your knees pain.”

Adkins continued to visit her chiropractor for four years until a change in her insurance coverage caused her to stop. By that time however, she had learned how to pinpoint her migraines and do self-massages to soothe her pain.

She also said her migraines eased when she quit smoking as an adult, and began paying more attention to her allergies and allergy treatments. In December 2012, she began seeing an internist who also practices holistic medicine and encourages alternative therapies.

“She swears by chiropractors and will go to herbal remedies first before she does prescription drug company stuff,” Adkins said. “For anxiety she says, ‘I could give you a prescription or go to Whole Foods,’ and she tells you exactly what to get.”

“It’s great,” she said, noting she hasn’t had a headache since before December.

The Diamond Headache Clinic also practices alternative treatments, in addition to pharmacological methods, and these include exercise, physical therapy and relaxation techniques, such as art therapy.

“Art therapy actually redirects a focus to something else which is relaxing and the time when they are doing something else, that they like, it reduces their pain,” Urban said.

Massage and chiropractic therapy offer similar relaxation techniques that help sufferers, like Adkins, focus on something other than their pain.

With age and a few lifestyle changes, Adkins’ migraines are less frequent than in her youth. Though much of her pain has subsided, it has afflicted two of her children: 8-year-old daughter, Lillian, and 10-year-old son, Benjamin.

Luckily, since getting her tonsils and adenoids removed, Lillian’s headaches were short-lived, Adkins said. Benjamin has headaches once every few months and even slight weather changes can spark an attack, she said.

She refers to one night when Benjamin’s headache was so intense it woke him up. "His head hurt so bad so we put the ice on it and he laid down and he was able to fall asleep,” she said. In addition to the ice, she said she might give him Tylenol or his allergy medicine with plenty of water.

Another option is Ibuprofen - and she uses a generic. But that is about as far as Adkins will go to treat her son’s headaches with medicine. She is wary of stronger headache and migraine medications that could possibly have negative side effects.

“I’d rather them try alternative treatment before taking chemicals,” she said. “I think a chiropractic plan can cure a problem where as most medication treats symptoms and it is not a cure.”

And the same goes for herself, especially when she’s caring for her children.

“If I can take care of it without medicine, I’d rather do that first. Cause sometimes Ibuprofen will make me fall asleep. With the kids I try not to take medicine because if I have to fall asleep, I can’t leave them alone, especially the four year old,” she laughed.