Story by: Nick Picht; Reviewed by Mandy J. Whitt, M.D. on August 31, 2023
Glenda Leary remembers her first migraine.
“I was sitting at home on the couch, and I was so nauseous I couldn’t even get up,” Glenda said.
The sudden pain was so intense, even her cocker spaniel, Katie, could pick up on it, licking Glenda’s head in an attempt to alleviate the pain for her.
That was 2005, and the pain would become part of Glenda’s reality.
“It is 10 times worse than a regular headache,” Glenda said. “[For] a headache, you can take something over-the-counter, and typically that helps. This is the worst thing. I don’t even wish it on my worst enemy. If I could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, it would be a 13.”
Glenda eventually was diagnosed with two types of headaches — the traditional migraine and occipital neuralgia, a condition that occurs when the occipital nerves, that run through the scalp, become inflamed. It causes headaches that feel like severe piercing, throbbing or shock-like pain in the upper neck, back of the head or behind the ears. For Glenda, they would flip on like a light switch.
“It’s more like electricity shooting up on the side of my head and affecting my vision,” Glenda said. “It only hurts when it’s shocking me, and then it stops hurting me when it stops shocking. It happens at the worst of times.”
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She spent the next two decades trying to find her own cure, while her husband served in the military. He returned from duty as a combat-wounded veteran, experiencing post-traumatic headaches as a result of his military service.
At that point, Glenda put her health second as she assumed the role of her husband’s primary caregiver, helping him recover to the best of his ability. Her headaches got worse over time.
“It became debilitating for me,” Glenda said. “I finally determined that I needed to put myself first, kind of the old saying, ‘put the oxygen mask on before you take care of someone else.’”
Glenda was introduced to Botox as a treatment for migraine in 2010, shortly after the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug’s use. She learned about it during one of her husband’s appointments, but didn’t begin receiving the treatment until 12 years later, after she met Mandy J. Whitt, M.D., headache specialist with Norton Neuroscience Institute.
Since 2022, Glenda’s been receiving the Botox treatments every 12 weeks. The solution is injected 31 times in specific areas of the head and neck.
“It has been a game changer for me,” Glenda said. “I feel like I can live my life again.”
Botox, or onabotulinumtoxinA, is a neurotoxin that helps prevent migraine in a few ways. First, it acts as a muscle relaxer to stop spasms in different areas of the head, including the temporalis, frontalis and corrugator. It also works by inhibiting the transport of proteins that can cause migraine. Blocking this neurological process takes time, and the treatment can take up to nine months to be effective.
“Being a headache specialist, unfortunately when you get to me, you’ve generally tried a lot of oral medications, and you’re pretty miserable,” Dr. Whitt saidAccording to Dr. Whitt, many of her patients are experiencing headaches almost daily. She offers Botox to those who have failed multiple medications and for years.
“Most of the time the answer is, ‘Yes, I’ll try anything,’” she said.Botox works particularly well in decreasing migraine symptoms. It is not a permanent cure, however, and usually wears off after 10 to 12 weeks as the headache-related proteins redevelop. That means it’s time to revisit the doctor.
“I would love for there to be a cure where I didn’t have to see them every three months, where it wasn’t wearing off,” Dr. Whitt said. “The fact that something’s helping, I love that we’ve improved the quality of life.”
For Glenda, that improved quality of live means that while she continues to care for her husband, she’s also gotten back to enjoying her hobbies. She’s restarted woodworking, gardening and canning, and her chicken coop looks better than ever.
She credits it all to Dr. Whitt, and her patient-first approach. “When you find a doctor who actually cares about the patient and is willing to try anything and everything to get the right care for you, you want to stick with them,” Glenda said. “In my past, and I have 20 years of experience, I have been to doctors who have ignored my pains. So, when you walk right in, she is so warm and so friendly, and it’s a team effort with her.”
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