For 26-year-old Maria Hartnett, the blinding pain of migraine headaches was a daily nightmare.
Most people suffer from an occasional headache, but for the past five years, Hartnett — a young, energetic environmental consultant — fought debilitating pain every single day. More than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic recurring headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.
"It's just pain everywhere and then stabbing pain in the back of my head and neck," Hartnett said in a video diary she and her husband recorded for Good Morning America at their Vienna, Va., home.
There were days when Maria Hartnett could not move, or even get out of bed. The pain would force her to lie down all day in a dark room. Her husband, Jeff Hartnett, could do nothing but watch his wife suffer. During the taping of the video diary, she had to ask him to turn off the bright light of the camera.
"She's just in a lot of pain, struggling to get through another migraine," Jeff Hartnett said. "It's difficult to see your wife crying and just not being able to do the things that she could do before."
The couple recently found a neurologist who was able to help Maria Hartnett through a combination of diet changes, and eliminating medications she was taking. But it took much trial and error to get there.
Because of the migraines, Maria Hartnett had been unable to work for nine weeks, unable to make a date with her own husband and unable to take care of her 18-month-old son, Evan, by herself. She visited four different neurologists and tried more than 30 medications, but none were able to take away the agony.
But perhaps the greatest pain was the impact that her headaches had on her ability to be a mother.
"I think that is definitely the hardest part," Maria Hartnett said. "Being a mother and not being able to take care of my son has brought a whole new dimension of difficulty into living with chronic migraines." At her wit's end, Maria Hartnett met with Dr. David Buchholz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a member of its neurology department for nearly 20 years. In private practice since 1997, he is also the author of Heal Your Headache, which teaches patients like Maria Hartnett how they can control their own migraines.
"From what I see of Maria, she's got the willingness, she's got the motivation and I expect her to succeed," Buchholz said after meeting Hartnett.
He said there really is no such thing as a "tension" or "sinus" headache, and that all headaches are migraines.
"All headaches come from the same underlying mechanism — when blood vessels swell," Buchholz said. "Control that, and you stop the headaches. Sometimes the swelling occurs in different areas, and that's why we identify, incorrectly, headaches as "tension" or "sinus" headaches."
Dump the Migraine Drugs
The first step that Buchholz asked Hartnett to take seems counterintuitive: He advised her to get rid of all of her headache medicine, which included painkillers with caffeine, decongestants and even prescription migraine medication. All of the drugs can cause "rebound" headaches if used more than a few times a month, Buchholz said.