Six years ago, Christine Watkins-Price got a migraine headache. And it never went away. She is one of about eight million Americans — nearly all women — with an extreme headache disorder known as transformed migraine. Find out how receiving the right treatment helped regain control of her life after 20 years of pain.
“I’ve had them for as long as I can remember,” says Watkins-Price, now 30, who has suffered from chronic migraine headaches since the age of 4. And for most of her life, doctors were unable to treat her condition effectively.
“People just don’t understand how you can have a headache every day,” says Watkins-Price. “They can’t understand the magnitude of how painful, how frustrating and how debilitating they are.”
Like most severely disabled headache patients, Watkins Price has seen a long list of physicians, from family practitioners to chiropractors to neurologists, and has been subjected to a myriad of tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG). She now suffers from an extreme form of migraine known as transformed migraine, which in some cases is believed to result from overuse of pain medications.
“They just kept giving me Demerol,” Watkins-Price says, describing a life consumed by a vicious cycle of doctor visits, powerful pain medications and frequent trips to the emergency room. “I was taking medication every two to four hours. I think I was in the emergency room when somebody gave me Dr. Kaniecki’s card.”
Six years ago, she dialed the phone number on that card and changed her life.
Two to four times a year, Watkins-Price makes the two-hour drive from Johnstown, Pa., to Pittsburgh to see the doctor that has helped her manage her disease for the last six years, Dr. Robert Kaniecki, director of the University of Pittsburgh Headache Center.
When Kaniecki first saw Watkins-Price in 1995, he hospitalized her for several days to begin a detoxification process made necessary by many years of consuming pain medications. The cornerstone of that treatment was dyhydroergotamine, or including DHE, a drug that often can break the migraine cycle.
For most chronic headache sufferers, effective treatment is a life-changing experience. In just days, Watkins-Price went from being essentially bed-ridden, self-exiled to a life in total darkness, dependent on others to feed and bathe her, to being able to walk outside.
Kaniecki says her experience is typical among severely disabled headache sufferers, stressing the goal is to manage the headache and minimize its impact on the patient’s lifestyle rather than completely eliminate the pain. It’s a slow process that usually takes from three to ive years to achieve acceptable results.
“There’s still a sense out there that treating migraine means treating pain,” Kaniecki says, adding most chronic headache patients suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain, usually a deficiency of the neurotransmitterserotonin.
Severe chronic headache disease is life-altering on more levels than simply coping with pain. Watkins-Price says the decision to have children was a difficult one.
“I thought, how am I going to be able to take care of a baby when my mom has to come over and take care of me,” she says, adding there have been many times when the pain was so intense she simply couldn’t function, requiring her husband to pick her up and carry her to bed.
And pregnancy can mean changing treatment regimines, often for less effective drugs that won’t endanger a developing fetus.
“You have to really watch what you can be one when youa’re pregnant,” Watkins-Price says, explaining Kaniecki worked with her to find a combination of therapies that allowed her to manage her pain without creating additional risk for her child.
She said routine management her headache also involves juggling of medications because some drugs tend to lose their effectiveness when taken for long periods of time. Kaniecki periodically alters her regimine to allow the best quality of life possible. She is currently on a high daily maintenance dose of 60 mg Prozac®, a serotonin lifter, and occasional injections of Imitrix®, a headache-specific drug that produces a rapid boost in serotonin.
While not cured — she still has a headache that never goes away — Watkins-Price is able to manage her pain with a variety of drugs and close monitoring by Kaniecki. And perhaps even more important, she has control of her life. In addition to working full-time as a first-grade teacher — something she never dreamed of until six years ago — she now has two children, ages 2 and 6 months. And finally, a life she can call her own.