The Heart-Migraine Connection

While I have had only a handful of migraine headaches, my wife has had literally thousands. My wife was two years old when she began suffering from massive migraines. Doctors tested, x-rayed and did all that was known at that time to find the source. They could not. While pregnant with our second child, she suffered with one migraine per day through the entire pregnancy. I was a Naval Aviator (pilot) at the time and traveled almost constantly. We both endured this. So I learned to walk quietly in dark rooms, throw away my colognes and chemical cleaners.

Fast forward through countless migraines to 2005 when she suffered was initially diagnosed as a heart attack on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. I was in Dallas for business on Friday night, but woke at 4 am and raced to the airport knowing I had to be home (Just had that feeling I had to go right then). When I arrived, my wife was calling from the CCU saying they wanted her to sign the paperwork authorizing the surgery they wanted to do. At the CCU, they pushed a cath through her veins to check out her blood vessels. All was good: ”double wide for her age and pristine” meaning no sign of plaque. They could find nothing wrong, and did not see there was a hole in her heart. The tests they did stopped at the outside of the heart so they did not see the major problem.

Three years later, her sister began suffering the same massive migraines. When she was shown a picture (MRI) with white spots all over her brain and was told it might be MS, she wanted another opinion. After some searching she ended up being referred to a CARDIOLOGIST who tested her and quickly determined she had a “hole in her heart”. It turns out the cardiologist was a long-time migraine sufferer who I believe suffered a mini-stroke. He set out to determine if there was a link between the heart and migraines. He found one.

My wife was subsequently diagnosed with a hole in her heart, as was her youngest sister. When it came to the initial diagnostic test, I called my sister-in-law and got her to invite us out a week after her procedure. She was scheduled for a check-up and I got her to take my wife to the doctor’s office with her. My sister-in-law told the doctor of my wife’s history, and they did a five minute test that was ”definitive”. This first test was followed by a second that confirmed there was a hole. I checked with our insurance company and they covered the procedure. (They would rather pay for a one-time out patient procedure than pay for the stroke rehab…) After her procedure, we went home for an hour rest, then to lunch, and then she went out shopping with her sisters. Success!

I shared this story with my college roommate who suffered a “mini-stroke” or "complicated migraine" with vision loss in one eye at 23 and was given a medical discharge from the Navy (no more flying fighters for him).

My wife and her two sisters all suffered from severe migraines with multiple triggers—odors, chemicals, stress, etc. All had a simple procedure (30 to 45 minutes in the cath lab) done to close the holes in their hearts! So what’s with the hole in the heart and migraines? The hole was “designed” to be there when we were in utero, and was supposed to close around 18 months of age. If it persists and you encounter certain chemicals in the air you breathe, the chemicals are carried to the brain directly — negating the natural barrier that we should have. Either the air bubbles themselves or what is carried into the brain triggers a migraine when a hole is present. This is what I understand.

When Poison’s lead singer, Bret Michaels, was reported to have had a brain hemorrhage and then a TIA (stroke), I wrote his doctor and referred him to our doctor and suggested it was a patent foramen ovale (PFO), a “hole in the heart.” He had surgery to patch the hole in his heart, too.

Those who experience migraines with the classic visual signs (auras, flashing lights, tunnel vision, blocked out areas of vision, etc.) and those who have family histories of severe migraines and strokes more than likely have either a PFO or an Atrial Septal Defect (ASD). My wife's ASD involved one of the larger holes (1/2-inch which required the largest patch available) and a flap that collected blood that clotted and than transited through her blood stream. She was fortunate that her heart condition was found (again, it wasn't found in the CCU, it was found when searching for the root cause of her migraines years later) and was corrected before a debilitating stroke. Her migraines are now much less painful, much less frequent, and usually respond to over the counter therapy (Excedrin Migraine).

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