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the journal
The Misery of Migraines

Cover Story

Art Exhibit, Legislative Action Make Migraines Less Of A Headache

By Rebecca Cherry Journal Staff Writer

Alexandria Journal Cover Story--Febuary 1998

It starts with flashing lights. Lightning bolts across the eyes. Blind spots. Numbness. Nausea. Half his head begins to throb with a pain that could last for days. Michael John Coleman, like more than 18 million Americans, suffers from migraine headaches.

"Light hurts, even sound hurts," said the 36-year-old Alexandria, VA., resident, describing an attack. "It's like being struck by a force you can't see."

Coleman has spent most of his adult life convincing the public that migraines are a serious disease, not a nagging complaint. Coleman, a photographer and founder of Migraine Awareness Group: A National Understanding for Migraineurs, or MAGNUM, is one of three artists whose work is on display through Feb. 16 at The Principle Gallery in Alexandria. The third annual show is an effort by the national group to raise awareness of the disease, Coleman said.


The condition received unexpected national attention last Sunday when a migraine headache hit Denver Bronco running back Terrell Davis during the Super Bowl. Davis started losing his vision during the second quarter and was forced to leave the game.

He later told reporters he knew a migraine was about to start. With the help of medication during halftime, Davis returned to the game and led the Broncos to an upset victory. He scored a Super Bowl record three touchdowns and was named the game's most valuable player.

In one sense, the nationally televised incident may help Americans understand that even a 210- pound tough guy can get knocked out by a headache, Coleman said.

On the other hand, if Davis can win the Super Bowl with a migraine, it might be hard for some people to understand why a co-worker with the same disease might need the day off. MAGNUM reports that 150 million work days are lost annually to migraines.

The disease is largely hereditary, with up to 90 percent of sufferers reporting the disease in other family members, said Dr. Stewart Stark of the Neurology and Headache Treatment Center in Alexandria.

Severity of migraines varies widely, Stark said. In the mildest cases, migraines lasting a few hours strike a few times a year and taper off as the person ages. Other people, including Coleman, suffer frequent and severe migraines. He has suffered two to four a week since he was 6 years old.

"I was in first grade and I remember looking out the window at these dark billowing clouds," he said. "I couldnıt understand why my head hurt. It just hurt to move."

Since 75 percent of migraine sufferers are women, the disease receives increased attention as a women's health issue, said Terri Miller Burchfield of Alexandria, legislative director of MAGNUM and a migraine sufferer. Pregnancy and menopause often affect the severity and frequency of migraines. Birth control pills can exacerbate the problem. Many women experience migraine around the time of their menstrual cycle.

The perception that migraines are caused by emotional problems has hampered public understanding of the condition, Coleman said.

"It's a real disease, it's not just somebody whining," Coleman said. "Some people think you get them because you cannot control your emotions or you have too much stress. But itıs not the person's fault."

That the word 'migraine' has fallen into common parlance to mean any bad headache compounds misperceptions, Burchfield said.

Migraines have affected many notable personalities including Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, Elvis Presley, Sigmund Freud, and Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Lewis Carroll is believed to have drawn on his migraine experience for some of the surreal descriptions in his book "Alice in Wonderland."

Triggered by certain foods, weather, travel, bright lights or hormonal changes, migraines typically last from four to 72 hours, Stark said. Some people experience visual disturbance, such as blind spots, flashes and jagged lines. Others report numbness, tingling and loss of speech.

Known as "aura," these preliminary symptoms are quickly followed by severe pain on one side of the head. Even minor amounts of light or sound cause pain. Most people experience nausea and vomiting. In some rare cases, a migraine can trigger a stroke, Stark said.

Unlike tension headaches, caused by muscle tension, or sinus headaches, caused by infection, migraine headaches are vascular and result from the rapid constriction and then prolonged dilation of blood vessels in the head.

Research has centered on the chemical reactions governing vasoconstriction and dilation and although doctors are not in complete agreement about the chemical processes that take place in the brain, nearly all agree that migraines work by a trigger mechanism.

The art exhibit, on display through Feb. 16, is the third of its kind organized by MAGNUM. The show includes paintings by Zimbabwe-born painter Trevor Southey, who now lives in San Francisco, and New York painter Janet McKenzie, who has suffered from migraines all her life. A similar exhibit was displayed in the Cannon Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in May of last year. This yearıs exhibit travels to Atlanta in May.

Besides raising public awareness, MAGNUM also lobbies for legislation. Laws ensuring migraines were covered by Medicaid and Medicare were passed by Congress last year, as part of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, Coleman said.

This year, MAGNUM is lobbying to extend that coverage to the general population. Ten states, including Virginia, make special provisions for treatment of pain.

"If you go to the emergency room in extreme pain, with a migraine or premenstrual syndrome, they have to see you and treat you and insurance has to pay for it," Coleman said. But 40 other states have no such guarantee.

MAGNUM's next goal is to have migraine headaches included on the list of impairments eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. Legislation is pending, Coleman said.

"People with intractable migraine deserve the same consideration as any other disease on the list - epilepsy, diabetes, glaucoma, lost limbs," Coleman said.

© The Washington Times Journal Newspapers 1997