You don’t have to live with headaches
Sue McAlpine figures her headaches started around the time she was 12. Headaches so bad that her vision blurred.
“I could barely function,” said McAlpine, 42, of Danbury.
For Heather Arencibia of Ridgefield, headaches were simply an almost daily fact of life.
“I figured you just took Advil every day,” said Arencibia, 41.
Enter Julie Waight, headache specialist. The nurse-practitioner is spreading a simple message: People don’t have to live with headaches.
“Nobody really dies of migraines,” Waight said. “But people who suffer from headaches can have a lower quality of life. There can be depression. I see kids with chronic headaches who can’t go to school because of them.”
Waight, at 50, knows of what she speaks. She suffers from migraines and, like many headache sufferers, she got little help from doctors to ease the pain.
“I started with them in high school,” she said. “I attributed them to staying up late studying.” Lots of stress and coffee-drinking in college didn’t help either.
Waight had her career planned out – she was going to be a cardiac nurse working on open-heart surgery. But needing some clinical work to complete her degree, she began studying headaches with a neurologist.
“I was fascinated,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how interesting it was.”
So instead of surgery, she became a headache specialist, working at the New England Center for Headaches in Stamford with Drs. Alan Rapoport and Fred Sheftell – two physicians who have been the leading lights in studying and treating headaches. She also worked with Dr. Larry Newman in New York City before joining the practice at Associated Neurologists in Danbury.
What Waight has found – with her migraines and with her patients – is that most family doctors don’t know how to treat headaches. Some just ignore them.
“It’s the same with everybody, everywhere,” she said. “It’s ‘Take two aspirin and go back to work.’ ”
But there are big differences between migraine headaches – which are caused by the constriction and dilation of the arteries to the brain and sometimes seem to have their own rhythm, triggered by food and hormonal changes – and cluster headaches, which can occur suddenly, with a stabbing, disabling pain.
Patients with other chronic disease, like fibromyalgia, can suffer from headaches as a result of those diseases, she said.
Waight said there are now good medications that can help the different syndromes. Like many illnesses, she said, it’s best if people get help early, rather than having their pain drag on and cause complications.
“I always tell my patients, ‘It’s not good to have a headache every day,’ ” she said.
Both McAlpine and Arencibia – who suffer from migraines – credit Waight with helping.
McAlpine got good medications and has learned to reduce stress.
“I’ve had to learn to take care of myself,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to sometimes say ‘no’ to people and put myself first. That was a big step for me.”
For Arencibia, the problem was that the constant dose of over-the-counter painkillers she was taking caused her to get rebound headaches – headaches caused by the medication itself. Under Waight’s guidance, she stopped taking all medication to let her system clear itself out.
“Now I’m taking a very low-dose beta blacker, and that helps a lot,” she said.
It’s this part of her practice – the complexities, the differences between each patient – that fuels Waight’s continuing fascination with her work. Her own migraines under control, she’s able to help others.
“I’ve always been challenged by difficult things,” she said. “No two headaches are the same.”
Contact Robert Miller at .
By Robert Miller The News-Times, Danbury, Conn.