The Scary New Migraine Mistake

Millions of women are being prescribed pain relievers that they get addicted to—and that make their headaches more frequent.

By Peg Rosen
migraines medicine hammer mallet prescription drugs picture
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

ON A LATE afternoon in April at the Head Pain Treatment Unit of Chelsea Community Hospital in Michigan, everything feels muted—window shades are drawn, and patients are speaking just above a whisper. Linda, a migraine sufferer who does not want to reveal her last name, is on day four of her detox treatment and is feeling nauseated. Wearing an elegant maroon and orange shawl, Linda describes her previous night to a group of doctors, nurses and psychologists: “My legs were twisting and jumping so much, there was no way I could sleep. I was miserable.”

Like 70 percent of the patients at this headache-treatment center of last resort, Linda is under medical supervision while she withdraws from addictive painkillers that were prescribed to quell her debilitating headaches. Ironically, when her neurologist back home recommended she take powerful opioids for her daily migraines, Linda, who sells real estate for a living, was reluctant. “I did my research and read about how quickly you can become dependent,” she says. “I told my doctor how worried I was, but he basically said there was nothing else that could help me. And here I am, nine months later, physically dependent on a drug I never wanted to be on in the first place.”

Most other headache sufferers don’t choose to be addicts either—but an estimated one in five migraine patients is prescribed opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet, and barbiturates such as Fioricet; almost 20 percent of the opioids prescribed in this country are dispensed to relieve the pain of migraines and headaches, according to a study of medical-insurance claims published in 2009. While no one knows for sure how many migraine sufferers go on to overuse addictive painkillers, the problem is “epidemic,” says Joel Saper, MD, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute (MHNI), which administers the in-patient program in Chelsea and an outpatient clinic in nearby Ann Arbor. Who’s getting addicted? At the Waismann Method in Beverly Hills, a rapid-opiate-detoxification center, patients undergoing withdrawal from narcotics taken for migraines tend to be “women in their thirties, forties and fifties, with families, husbands and jobs,” says co-medical director Michael Lowenstein, MD. In other words, women very much like us and the people we know.

As the number of prescriptions for potentially addictive painkillers soars in this country, experts predict the dependency problem will only grow worse. “For every patient who truly needs narcotics for migraines, there are about 100 who are getting them,” estimates Stephen D. Silberstein, MD, director of the Jefferson Headache Center in Philadelphia. Every now and then we hear about breakthroughs in migraine treatment, such as the development of a group of drugs called triptans—so why are so many doctors prescribing narcotics? The answer says a lot about the nature of migraines and the American medical system.

A MEDICINE CABINET OF SOLUTIONS
Headaches come in many forms (see “Name That Headache,” at the end of this article), but when sufferers end up with a painkiller problem, it’s almost always because they are among the 30 million Americans struggling with migraines. Women are three times as likely as men to experience this particular kind of headache, which produces a debilitating pain that Shawn King, singer, businesswoman and wife of television personality Larry King, likens to having “an ice pick in my head.” But pain is only part of the package. Migraines are complex conditions that can also produce extreme nausea, pain at the slightest touch and an acute sensitivity to light. “Migraine symptoms can incapacitate a person for hours or days at a time,” notes Cathy Glaser, cofounder and president of the Migraine Research Foundation in New York City.

First Published October 10, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!

Comments

Ewizobeth Noyb07.14.2013

Wow, it's articles like this that have turned an already hostile environment for Migraineurs into a combat zone. By pigeon-hole Migraineurs along with street addicts and criminals, you have given the already insensitive, contemptuous doctor justification for moral outrage. In other words, the migraine is blamed on the Migraineur.
In medical settings, the Migraineur, already at high risk of stroke or aneurysm, is further endangered by the abusive treatment of angry doctors. In fact, imagine a ticker tape registering each unfortunate Migraineur's death caused, in part, by this bombastic article. Did you know that in the U.S. more people die each year from migraine strokes, than are killed by handguns? Picture the gunshot victim being wheeled into the ER at the top of the triage list, while somewhere in a dark back room, the lowly Migraineur sits, quaking with fear as to what comes next.
I have used morphine at home for twenty years, never needing any increase in my prescription. Recently, I have changed pain clinics, and during the interim, I stopped using morphine without tapering. I wanted to experience withdrawal full force, so I could find out what I'm dealing with.
After four days, I began wondering when the withdrawal suffering would begin. It just never happened. No physical withdrawal, no psychological withdrawal, and no change in my mental state. I had always asked my husband if he could tell when I was using morphine, and his answer was always no. But any time I use Ambien, he knows within five minutes. He says “you just took Ambien, didn't you?”
Right after discontinuing morphine, my dad was gravely ill and placed in hospice. My family took shifts 24 hours a day so that he would never be alone. This was a highly stressful situation in which a narcotics addict would be scrambling for any drug to self-medicate against the intense emotions. It never crossed my mind, except to wonder why it wasn't happening. I was fully present for my dad, and I experienced the entire spectrum of emotions from sadness to joy, without pulling away.
But before you do the Snoopy dance because I stopped using narcotics, I need to let you know that discontinuing morphine was a total disaster. I knew I was in trouble when my visual migraines returned after a 20 year absence. Since then, I've had my first seven day migraine (that's seven days in bed). The left side of my head got covered in welts. My migraines spun out of control. But at least I know I'm not such an idiot as to become a drug addict. They say that addicts have a black hole inside that can never be filled. I'm not like that. The most common nickname people give me is “Smiley”.
MAGNUM (Migraine Awareness Group for National Understanding for Migraineurs) has an excellent article about the true nature of Migraine at http://www.migraines.org/myth/mythreal.htm that you should read. Basically, all five senses are amplified in Migraineurs. Using myself as an example:. TOUCH: when I was a child, my family called me “Princess and the Pea”, because they were certain I would feel a pea under 18 mattresses. HEARING: I tell people that I have “radar” ears to explain why pick up on every conversation near me. TASTE: while the family enjoys a delicious meal, all I can taste is freezer burn that no one else notices. SMELL: I always smell things that no one else does, or I smell things first, like burning leaves in a neighbor's yard. Migraine is a genetically inherited disease, not a headache. It involves the entire body, not just inflammation of the head region.
Ever since I read the MAGNUM article, I've had one “aha” moment after another. Finally, a credible breakthrough in the understanding of migraine.
I've had to go to the ER a few times recently, and conditions have deteriorated during my 20 year absence. I can only describe the current conditions as barbaric. The doctors are barbarians. I didn't think I would have ever have a use for the word “barbaric”. Never say never. The situation is dire and dangerous for Migraineurs.
And into the mix comes your article. I'm sure your colleagues are all patting you on the back for your “insights”. You are like every other interloper. You are on the outside, looking in. You are building your own reputation on the backs of people who are already stigmatized and abused. And don't say you have migraines, because you have never had my migraines. With friends like you, Migraineurs don't need enemies.
By the way, I bookmarked your article under bullsh*t.

Gillean McLeod09.24.2012

Last year, after five days straight of the scariest migraine ever, I was driven to the emergency room of a local hospital in Los Angeles. I was given an iv for fluid, and into
that the er doc. put a dose of benadryl. It took four hours for the headache to wear off.
He claimed that this particular hospital treats migraines as an allergy. From that
day forth I have had no alcohol, no gluten, no wheat, very little dairy and the headaches that have plagued me for 45 years are virtually gone. Of course hormones must play a large part in the disappearance of the weekly headaches, but I feel like a new person. So glad that I no longer have to take any medication.

Teri Robert08.26.2012

The basic premise of your article, stated under the title - "Millions of women are being prescribed pain relievers that they get addicted to—and that make their headaches more frequent. - IS FLAWED.
Medication overuse IS NOT ADDICTION. What's more, medication overuse headache (MOH) can occur if we use pretty much any type of medication to treat a Migraine more than two or three days a week - opioids; triptans such as Maxalt, Imitrex, Zomig, etc.; simple analgesics such as acetaminophen; NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or aspirin; anything. We're caught between a rock and a hard place.
Migraines are already very misunderstood and surrounded by stigma. If you're going to write about Migraine, be responsible, and get it right instead of adding to our problems.
Teri Robert
Migraineur, patient educator and advocate

M.K. Hajdin01.27.2012

Yet another scare story that would have us believe that opiates are evil and turn all migraineurs into drug addicts.
The stigma of "drug addict" or "drug seeker" is all-powerful in our society. Why? Drug addicts are scapegoats, viewed as lazy, weak, irresponsible, sociopathic. Nobody wants to get tarred with THAT brush. Nobody asks why we need to scapegoat people in the first place.
Opiates work well for many migraineurs. But they're being increasingly restricted and rationed - hoarded for the wealthy, who can get whatever they want with no questions asked. The poor had better content themselves with triptans and NSAIDs, if they even get that much, if their pain is even believed at all.
Stories like this only rationalize and justify anti-opiate paranoia. Even if a frequent migraineur develops a tolerance to opiates, tolerance is not addiction. And in cases of very frequent debilitating migraines, it would be better to have an addiction than constant uncontrolled pain. This is of course, anathema to our puritanical nation, who hate and despise drug addicts more than anything. We should try the U.K. model of harm reduction rather than deprive suffering people of cheap and effective medicine that works.

Jennifer Nelson10.26.2011

Headaches are troublesome enough; but when it gets to the point that you become addicted to your pain meds, you've added additional trouble in exchange for only temporary relief. This is such a great article, particularly because it shows how important it is for doctors to have the right training to treat headache sufferers. I know it is difficult when patients have many different triggers and reactions to medications, but that is why, right now, it is important for patients to go to a headache specialist. Once primary care physicians become better trained in headache and migraine, I hope that patients will be able to go to them for questions, but this is something that is so lightly covered in medical school. I recently read a great article on Headwise.com about when it is time to go to see a specialist (see http://www.headachemag.org/Articles/Lifestyle/The-Benefits-of-Seeing-a-H...).

Deborah 10.20.2011

Thank you for this article. I discovered/realized my husband's addiction to his migraine medication seven years ago. He's been free of pain meds now (specifically ultram/tramadol -- which he was prescribed by a well-known pain clinic back in 1997) for almost four years.
I started blogging about it this year and have found that we are far from alone...and your article is further evidence that this silent epidemic has been going on unnoticed and unheeded far too long. Sad to me that this is "new" when for too many migraine sufferers, it's been going on for decades.
My blog is enduringandafter.com. Maybe some who read this article will find encouragement from our story.
By the way, my husband has had MAYBE three migraines in the past four years -- ever since he came clean from the drugs. Prior to that, migraines were at minimum, a weekly occurrence.
Also, some of these drugs, like Tramadol, are dangerous to get off cold-turkey. Finding the right doctor or clinic to help you do so is critical. We know from far too much experience.

Post new comment

Click to add a comment