Migraine is one of the most disabling illnesses out there. Just ask Ashley Haynes, whose chronic head pain left her physically and emotionally drained. Thankfully, relief is possible.

Your Health | 10 months ago

Migraine Isn’t “Just a Headache” – and Relief is Possible

Migraine is one of the most disabling illnesses out there. Just ask Ashley Haynes, whose chronic head pain left her physically and emotionally drained. Thankfully, relief is possible. With care from specialists at Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute, Ashley took control of her migraines and is back to living fully.

Ashley Haynes likes being busy.

Case in point: During the COVID-19 pandemic, she completed her first year supporting technology integration at an elementary school – meaning that when schools shut down in March 2020, it was her job to figure out how to make remote learning work. Meanwhile, she juggled being a dedicated wife, a mom to her now 5-year-old daughter, and launched a new business – an online sticker shop – as a creative outlet.  

That kind of busy.

But back in early 2019, living such a full life seemed impossible. After experiencing migraine headaches on and off throughout her life, Ashley suddenly started getting them daily.

“It’s very scary to wake up every single morning and wonder how you’re going to get through the day, knowing your head is in the worst pain you’ve ever been in,” she says.

And despite her near-constant, excruciating migraines, some people in her life didn’t understand how brutal her condition was – and even wrote it off as “just a headache.” Ashley was frustrated, exhausted and growing hopeless that she’d ever find relief.

“It affected who I was as a person”

Most people get headaches from time to time. But migraine is more than a bad headache – it’s a neurological disease, and it can be debilitating. While genetics and environmental factors play a role in migraine, there’s no known cause or one-size-fits-all treatment.

“Headaches are nagging and annoying, but you can go about your day. They’re not necessarily better or worse with activity,” explains Kate Schultz, PA, a headache specialist at Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute Neurology Northeast. “But with migraines, you feel like you need to go to a dark, quiet room to lay down. It really starts to impact your quality of life, because you can’t do the activities you want to or even need to do.”

The main symptom of migraine is a throbbing or pounding headache that can become severely painful. In addition to pain, migraines are often accompanied by one or more disabling symptoms, like nausea, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to light, sound or smells, and vision changes, like flashing lights or blind spots.  

A single migraine episode can last for hours or even days at a time. Migraines are considered chronic if a person has headaches at least 15 days a month, including at least 8 days of migraine headaches, for 3 or more months.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, more than 4 million people suffer from chronic migraine, 85% of whom are women.

At her worst, Ashley endured daily migraines for 3 months straight. Day after day, her head throbbed with unbearable pain – like at any moment, it might just explode. Sometimes her eye would swell up, or she’d lose her vision entirely.  

Over-the-counter medication didn’t help, and she struggled to stay positive. Really, she struggled to feel like herself at all.

“It affected my mental health and who I was as a person,” Ashley says. “There were times I could hardly get out of bed for weeks on end. It was really hard to wake up and go play with my daughter, go outside or even have conversations. When your head is pounding like that, you can barely function.”

At the time, Ashley was a second-grade teacher. Incredibly, she pushed through her migraines to continue showing up for her students. And while some adults in her life didn’t notice her declining condition, the kids in her class could tell something was wrong.

“The kids would say, ‘Ms. Haynes, you don’t look good. Are you going to be OK?’ And I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know.’ I had to be honest with them,” Ashley says. “I was in pain every day and I didn’t know if it would ever end.”

One day, her pain was so intense that she went to the ER, desperate for a solution. And while healthcare providers at the ER may be able to help get a migraine episode under control, treating chronic migraine effectively requires expertise.

So in March 2019, Ashley consulted her primary care doctor, who referred her to Kate Schultz, PA, for more specialized care.

“It’s going to be OK”

When Ashley met with Schultz, the sense of emotional relief was immediate.

“I remember the first thing Kate told me was, ‘I know you’ve been in so much pain, but it’s going to be OK. I’m not going to stop until we figure this out.’ Finally having someone who took that time to acknowledge me and what I was feeling was incredible,” Ashley recalls.

Schultz had Ashley track her headaches in a migraine diary, which allowed them to identify triggers for her migraine attacks: stress, weather changes and hormonal fluctuations. They also worked together to find the best migraine medication for Ashley’s overall health.

Soon after, Ashley went from having daily migraines to having one migraine every few months. She’s aware of her triggers and can predict her migraines better, and she practices self-care to reduce her risk. She also has a “rescue” medication on hand, which helps her get her pain under control faster. 

“Now, I feel empowered. I know that when I feel this pain, I have ways to get rid of it,” Ashley says. “That’s probably been the most life-changing thing for me, knowing that I’m going to be OK and it’s going to end. Kate was a really big help in that.” 

“There’s a lot of hope for these patients”

The headache treatment program at Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute offers comprehensive, multidisciplinary care for all types of head and facial pain. From neurologists and nurses to physical therapists and psychologists, patients have access to a diverse team of headache specialists who work together to address their unique needs.

“It’s not just the medicines that help. There are other ways to help patients, too,” says Nauman Tariq, MD, the director of the headache treatment program at Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute Charlotte, a facility of Carolinas Medical Center.

Take, for example, the team’s pain psychologists – a unique but essential component of Atrium Health’s headache treatment program, according to Dr. Tariq. Psychologists can teach patients coping skills and distraction techniques or use other psychological treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to lessen pain. 

“We have monthly meetings that bring together experts from different disciplines to discuss complicated cases and to see what else we can do for them,” says Dr. Tariq. “I think that level of care is the advantage we offer patients at Atrium Health.” 

The team gets patients involved in treatment planning, too – whether it includes medication, lifestyle changes, psychological care or a combination of therapies. The main goal is improved quality of life, and that looks different for everyone.

And with advancements in migraine-specific treatments, Schultz says that more people can find relief than ever before – and urges those who haven’t had success in the past to try again.

“For a long time, people have thought that because a treatment they tried in the past didn’t work for them, nothing would,” she explains. “And now, there’s a lot of hope for these patients.”

“If you’re having pain, you need to fix it”

Most people who suffer from migraine don’t seek medical care for their pain, often self-medicating with over-the-counter drugs.

But ironically, using too much pain medication can trigger headaches. Consulting a healthcare provider can help sufferers find the right balance of pain management techniques.

And while most headaches, including migraines, aren’t life-threatening, it’s important to see a healthcare provider to rule out other possible causes of frequent or severe head pain. Plus, asking for help is the first step toward getting better.

Ashley says that knowing what she does now, she wishes she’d gotten help sooner – and she’s become an advocate for others to get the care they need.

“When I talk to someone who has chronic headaches, I ask them if they’ve gone to see a doctor. And often they’ll say, ‘No, it doesn’t really affect anything – it just hurts.’ And I’m like, ‘Why are you putting up with that?’ Because at the end of the day, you shouldn’t be in pain,” Ashley says.

“With a broken foot, you’re not just going to let it be broken. You’re going to get that fixed. And I think our brain should work the same way. If you’re having pain, you need to fix it.”

How to get care for headache and migraine

If you’re experiencing migraines, or frequent or severe headaches of any kind, talk to your primary care doctor. They may be able to help, or they can refer you to a headache specialist at Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute.

If you need help finding a primary care doctor, call us at 1-844-235-6997 or search and make an appointment online. To learn more about Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute, visit here.