A migraine pulses silently inside one out of every 10 people’s skulls, distracting them from work, school, and their personal lives. But what causes the debilitating neurological condition? A lack of medical knowledge due to the vast array of symptoms, degrees of pain, and widespread misinformation has delayed a convalescent cure.
What researchers do know is that migraines are a genetic disease, in that they run in families. Genetics are a direct influence on the chances a person has on developing migraines. If one parent has a history of migraines, there is approximately a 40 percent chance their child will experience them as well. If both parents have migraines, the chance that the child will also suffer from migraines jumps to over 90 percent.
“Genes provide the ability to develop migraines, but something else triggers them. You may inherit the genes, but there is something else at play,” Glaser said, who is a lawyer by trade. “We are all ignorant. The theories have been changing and will continue to change.”
Migraines are a subcategory of headaches and can inflict pain in one of two ways: Episodic migraines occur less than 15 days a month for three months, while chronic migraines are a continued and persistent presence of migraines throughout a person’s life. It can, and many times does, affect a person’s everyday life throughout social and professional settings. There are several treatment options such as preventive medications taken on a regular basis to reduce the severity or frequency, or pain-relieving medications known as abortive treatments that may alleviate symptoms that have already begun.
A study highlighting the effectiveness of over-the-counter medicines for treating severe migraines was recently conducted by the San Francisco Clinical Research Center. Researchers found that more than half of the people taking either ibuprofen or Excedrin reported some relief. The research was paid for by Novartis Consumer Health, which markets Excedrin.
“Combination analgesics [like Excedrin] have been around for a long, long time and have had a big impact on treating migraine,” Dr. Jerome Goldstein, lead author of the study and director of the San Francisco Clinical Research Center, told Reuters Health.
Goldstein’s co-authors, Martin Hagen and Morris Gold are both employees of Novartis. The study reported that Excedrin, which contains caffeine, was found to be the most effective in migraine-relief.
“A lot of people don’t go to specialists and can worsen their condition by self-treating their pain with over-the-counter drugs like Excedrin Migraine, aspirin, and Advil, and they're fine to relieve symptoms if it works for those who have the occasional headache or episodic migraine. But for those who suffer more frequenctly, taking these kinds of drugs can actually worsen their headaches. It is extremely important to be very critical in evaluating the information out there. There’s a lot of misinformation and you have to look at who funds the studies,” Glaser said.
Today, there are over 37 million Americans who suffer from migraines. Migraines have been known to cause vomiting, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, noise or odor sensitivity, moderate to severe pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, and dizziness, among others, according to WebMD. One out of every four women and one out of every 12 men suffers from migraines, which leads researchers to believe there is a level of hormonal influences in addition to neurological activity.
“After puberty, three times as many women get migraines as men. Considering their migraines change during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, we suspect, it indicates that hormones must be involved. It could be the change of hormones or the hormones themselves that are triggering the migraines. We still don’t know,” said Glaser, who has seen how hormones can affect a woman firsthand.
Glaser and her husband both suffer from episodic migraines. When they had their daughter, there was an over 90 percent chance that she was going to experience migraines just as they had. When Samantha was born, it only took two years for her episodic migraine symptoms to start to show. After she went through puberty, her migraines worsened into a severe chronic condition that limited her everyday life.
Her parents sought out to find her the best treatment possible, and what they found was a world of migraine sufferers with very few answers. At the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute (MHNI), a private nationally accredited specialty center, 16-year-old Samantha was the youngest one admitted into the Institute. There, Glaser saw people suffering from life-altering and debilitating migraines, from men who lost their jobs to young women who dropped out of school.
“I called it ‘the last stop on the train.’ It became clear to us that this wasn’t just my daughter’s problem, but there were many people suffering,” Glaser said.
She wanted to do something about it, which is what prompted Glaser to ask Dr. Joel Saper, the founder and director of MNHI, how they could help.
“That’s when he told us there was no organization funding research. When I first found out, I couldn’t believe there was no organization doing this, including the federal government. So we said, ‘let’s do this.’”
Glaser’s now 25-year-old daughter Samantha still suffers from migraines. The pain she suffered inspired her parents to open the Migraine Research Foundation in 2006. Dr. Saper, who is now the head of the MRF Medical Advisory Board, is one of 14 doctors from all over the United States.
MRF is one of a kind. It provides 12- to 18-month funding to proof of concept proposals of small out of the box innovative ideas. This year the organization is expected to fund about eight international research projects to further the understanding of the causes and mechanisms behind migraines. Every dollar raised goes back into migraine research.
The National Institutes of Health spends $18 million on migraine research funding, which is less than 0.1 percent out of the $21 billion the NIH has to spend each year. This figure stands starkly against the $1 billion dollars America spends on brain scans for headache or migraine patients each year, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan Medical School.
“We were surprised by the lack of funding,” Glaser said. “This is why awareness is key.”