More Than a Migraine?

CHICAGO, CA, USA They strike out of nowhere.

"Imagine having a level 5 or 6 of pain that doesn't go away," migraine sufferer Maria McIntyre told Ivanhoe.

Migraines show no mercy. For bioengineer Richard Higgins, they became a stumbling block to his career.

"My first symptoms are auras, which are a small blind spot in my vision," Higgins told Ivanhoe.

Auras afflict about one-third of migraine sufferers. Most don't know the visual symptoms could be pointing to a potentially life-threatening heart defect called patent foramen ovale, or PFO.

"We believe that 50 percent of patients who have migraine with aura have PFO," Ziyad Hijazi, M.D., an interventional cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Ill., told Ivanhoe.

The hole in the heart leaves a person at high risk for stroke.

"If your migraine is the migraine with aura and you get it at least a few times a month, the first test that you should have is an echocardiogram to see if you have a PFO or not," Dr. Hijazi said.

In addition to stroke, migraine with aura has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and depression. Dr. Stil Kountakis says sinus headaches and migraines often get confused.

"I have a lot of headache patients that come to my office saying, 'I have the sinus,'" Dr. Kountakis, Vice Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga., told Ivanhoe. "Most of the time what they describe is a vascular type of headache."

Although McIntyre's migraines haven't amounted to anything more serious, she's fought hard to get an accurate diagnosis.

"You know, going back to your doctors and saying there is something else," McIntyre said.

Her efforts will hopefully safeguard her future.

Clinical trials are underway to see if closure of PFOs prevents migraines and reduces the risk of stroke. Common treatments for migraine include over-the-counter and prescription medications and behavior modification.


Michaeleen Wallig
Rush University Medical Center
Chicago, IL
(312) 942-6800


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