Headaches

Studies indicate that headache is one of the most common neurological complaints of patients in the outpatient setting. It affects more than 36 million Americans each year and can have a significant impact on your quality of life and the lives of the people with whom you surround yourself. 

We are proud to be the first comprehensive headache center within West Michigan, and we are excited for the opportunity to participate in your care. Our goal is to partner with you in creating an individualized treatment plan to improve your headaches and improve your quality of life. At the headache center, we take a multidisciplinary approach, meaning a team of individuals will care for you. Our team is made up of highly trained neurologists, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and medical assistants. Your medical team will all work together to give you the best care possible. You should be prepared for a treatment plan that includes lifestyle and behavior modification and counseling, psychological counseling and treatment, and medical management including both preventive and acute medication treatment options.

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New Headache Patients

In order to prepare our patients to the best of our ability and to ensure optimum response to the treatments that are available, all new patients are to complete the following steps prior to seeing our providers.

Headache Center Education Class
About six to eight weeks prior to the consult appointment, we have patients attend our free one-hour education class, which is located at the Integrated Care Campus on the East Beltline. This class includes an overview of what headache and migraine are, overview of lifestyle factors that could be negatively impacting the frequency and severity of your headaches or migraines, discussion of steps that can be taken to see improvement, overview of treatment plans available within the Headache Center, and explanation of what to expect and how to prepare for your consult.

A large goal of having patients complete the education class prior to their consult is to start treatment for patients before they even see the provider and to set them up for optimum success once they see the provider. Lifestyle modifications are changes patients can make independently at home, in the interim, while waiting for their consult appointment. Making lifestyle modifications can have an enormous impact on headache frequency and intensity. If patients can modify some or all of these factors before they reach the provider, it will also give the patient the optimum chance of responding to additional psychotherapy and medical treatments.

Lab Work
All new patients are required to complete and pass a urine drug screen before they are able to see our providers. This screen is in place to ensure no patient harm comes from any possible drug interaction between any illicit drugs (drugs not prescribed by a provider, including marijuana) and medications available for treatment.  New patients are also required to complete and pass a urine nicotine screen before they are able to see our providers. Nicotine is a known trigger for headaches and it doubles the likelihood of developing them. In addition, nicotine has a significant blocking effect on the medications that are available for treatment. Nicotine cessation can decrease how often and how severely the patient experiences headaches, and it can also greatly improve the patient’s response to medications available.

  • We want all patients to be successful in this area, as we know it can have a great impact on their success in managing headaches.
  • These labs are to be completed at any Spectrum Health laboratory within a week of attending the education class.
  • Contact our nurse navigator to discuss smoking cessation resources or download one of our documents:
    - Local Smoking Cessation Programs
    - Quit for Life

Treatments for Headaches
Taking daily preventive measures is a practical approach to treating headaches. You may avoid known triggers or make lifestyle changes like avoiding caffeine. Yet, caution is wise. Overuse of short-term relief medicine (ibuprofen or Tylenol®) increases risks for a stroke or brain scarring, among other medical conditions. Seeing a doctor who specializes in headache causes turns the focus to long-term solutions.

Your treatment plan depends on your medical history with headaches and the type of headache you have (cluster, tension or migraine). Your headache specialist may prescribe medicine or suggest over-the-counter medicine to reduce the onset of symptoms or stop a headache in progress. Let us improve your headaches with our treatment options below.

Psychological Counseling and Treatment
Evaluation of opportunities for psychological counseling and treatment is a vital step when developing a treatment plan for headache and migraine management. This is an important step that we take with every patient of the Headache Center. This is because we know that if we let stress or other psychological disorders, which are common among the headache and migraine population, such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder and bipolar disorder, go untreated, then the medications that are available for treatment will likely be ineffective. Our program has a dedicated pain psychologist, Grant Heller, PhD, who sees all patients for their initial consult, and then for follow-up if deemed appropriate for the following services: 

  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive Behavioral Training
  • Development of Coping Skills
  • Relaxation Training
  • Therapy Sessions

Medication Treatment
There are two groups of medications that are highly important to discuss when developing a medication treatment plan. These are called preventive and acute medications. 

A preventive medication is intended to reduce the frequency, severity and duration of the headache you experience over a long period of time. The average trial period for a preventive medication is three to six months to successfully determine the effectiveness of the medication. When preventive medications are successful, they also improve your body’s response to acute medications. A preventive medication is given in the absence of a headache and should be taken regularly as prescribed by your physician.

Acute medications are intended to be used if your headache has lasted for at least four hours or at the first sign you know it will be a migraine. It is to be taken on an as-needed basis and only as prescribed by your physician to avoid developing medication overuse headache.

There are additional rescue therapies that are potentially available within the Headache Center, if deemed appropriate by the provider. Rescue therapies are intended to be used as a last resort. It is important to focus on any opportunities for lifestyle modifications and psychological treatment first. If we have made the appropriate changes and completed the appropriate treatment, and our preventive and acute medications are still ineffective, then it might be time to discuss the possibility of rescue therapy. Rescue medications are intended to break up the acute pain cycle you are in to allow the preventive medications to be effective. Some rescue therapies include nerve blocks, trigger point injections, outpatient infusions and planned hospital admissions.

Lifestyle Modification Education
Evaluation for potential lifestyle modification is vital to every patient of the Headache Center. Lifestyle modification refers to making changes to the food, drink and substances we put into our bodies and the physical actions we perform with our bodies every day. The most common areas of opportunity that also have the most impact on the frequency and severity of headaches are sleep, diet, exercise, nicotine and drug avoidance, and medication overuse. By addressing one or more of these lifestyle modifications, you have the potential to decrease the frequency and severity of your headaches, and it can also optimize your chance of success with the medications and therapies available for treatment.

A large part of lifestyle modification is about learning your specific triggers. Classic triggers include: increased stress, an external stimulus (e.g., weather change, bright lights, loud noises, etc.), various foods and drinks, medications, drug and nicotine use, etc. These can exacerbate a headache you already have or trigger a new headache altogether. Triggers do not affect everyone equally. A trigger for one person may have no effect on another person’s headaches. That is why it is very important to track these potential triggers to identify what has an effect on your specific headaches. If we can identify these triggers, you can implement trigger avoidance in your life, which can overall decrease the frequency or severity of your headaches and can also allow your medications or therapies to be more effective.

Please see the educational materials below for a more in-depth look into each of these classic lifestyle modifications:

For additional resources, visit the American Headache Society and American Migraine Foundation.


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