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chicago tribune
Super Bowl Star Draws
Attention to Migraines

By Bob Condor, Tribune Staff Writer.
Published: Thursday, February 5, 1998 Section:
TEMPO Page: 1

There are numerous triggers that can bring on pain for migraine sufferers. Terrell Davis, star running back of pro football's champion Denver Broncos, recently discovered a particularly unlikely one: a kick in the head.

In the first quarter of the Super Bowl, Davis was inadvertently kicked during a tackle and needed to be helped off the field. Quickly Davis realized he was on the verge of a migraine attack, which happens to him a few times each year.

Thanks to new medications, however, Davis was able to return to the game after missing the second quarter to receive treatment, subsequently winning the game's Most Valuable Player award and the knowing admiration of an estimated 12 million to 20 million American migraine sufferers. After the tackle, recognizing the familiar symptom of altered vision, Davis immediately took extra oxygen from on-field tanks. According to the Broncos medical staff, what helped the most was a new nasal spray form of a medication with DHE (dihydroergotamine), a drug he formerly received by injection.

"Two or three years ago, before new medicines were available, Mr. Davis might not have been able to return to the Super Bowl," said Michael John Coleman, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Migraine Awareness Group: a National Understanding for Migraineurs, or M.A.G.N.U.M.


Some Bulls fans who saw Davis draping his head with a towel -- migraines can cause hypersensitivity to bright lights and loud sounds -- couldn't help but be reminded of Scottie Pippen's similar poses during a critical Game 7 against Detroit in the 1990 National Basketball Association playoffs. Five championship rings later, there is less wondering if the new migraine medications would have brought the Bulls a win that day and a title. Still, unfairly, a few people harbor doubts that Pippen's physical ability was compromised that day.

In fact, migraines are debilitating for millions of Americans. The typical migraine, frequently on one side of the head, can last 4 to 72 hours. Some people get them once a month; others might have two or more each week. Like back pain, you must experience a migraine to truly understand it.

New research shows migraines are generated in the brain -- a serotonin chemical imbalance is the best guess -- and not caused by expansion and contraction of cerebral blood vessels. This discovery is allowing more focused scientific inquiry and drug trials.

Coleman has worked for several years among legislators to raise awareness about migraines. He is aiming to classify migraine as a "disease equal or similar to epilepsy." Such categorization would allow migraine sufferers to secure federal disability benefits when their headaches are severe enough to disrupt any flow of normal life, or simply make it easier to receive full insurance coverage for a condition that can be both mysterious and misunderstood.

The phones were ringing constantly at M.A.G.N.U.M. in the days after Davis' record-breaking performance in the Super Bowl. Is that good news for raising awareness?

"Yes and no," answered Coleman. "It allows for discussion of disease. Medical literature says migraines are a disease and that headaches are the main symptom.

"But there is also a danger that people think anyone with migraines, like Mr. Davis, can take some medicine and play or work through the pain. Mr. Davis is a superb athlete, and also fortunate that his migraine attacks are mild in comparison to many migraineurs." Another concern:

"Women experience migraines more often than men (an estimated 3-to-1 ratio). We get calls all the time from women who say their boyfriends or husbands don't understand what they are enduring. So maybe the guy at home watching the Super Bowl wonders how come his wife or girlfriend can't get their lives together enough to overcome migraine pain.

"It is a myth that someone can have a `migraine personality' that leads to stress overload or occurs because the person wants to pack too much into life."

That is just one of the plentiful myths about migraines. One truth is that patients react differently to medications.

"We can have two people with the same condition and symptoms," said Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. "One patient might respond quite favorably to the new Excedrin Migraine over-the-counter product (the first of its kind); the other person could get no results."

Elaine Shelton has learned this lesson. The 42-year-old Chicago woman, who averages about two migraines a week, has tried various drugs and other treatments in the last decade. She said her triggers include alcohol ("especially red wine"), hard cheeses, chocolate, nuts and an irregular sleep pattern.

"It's all trial-and-error," Shelton said. "I have discovered which medications help me with an acute attack and which ones can help prevent one. But even a successful regimen can stop working. Right now, I am in a phase of working out a new approach."

Shelton appreciates the new nasal spray product because clumsiness is an early migraine warning sign for her.

"Using a syringe to inject myself with the medication presented a significant technical problem," she said.


Next Thursday: The newest research and treatments, plus why that pain in your neck could be related to migraines.

Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company