MONTGOMERY CO., AL (WSFA) - Migraines are painful and debilitating. Officials say close to 39 million Americans suffer from them, yet doctors say research in the field has been slow due to a lack of funding and there's still no cure.
Words don't do the excruciating pain justice.
"Pounding with a hammer, on the top of your head or your temples, just a constant pounding, pounding, pounding," said Diane Walker, who has suffered from migraines since childhood. "I recall walking home from school with my books in one hand and my hand, my other hand, on my head just trying to get home so I could fall in the bed."
The neurological brain disorder has really ramped up in recent years for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency employee.
"It's so debilitating that in your mind you think if I could just cut my head off I would feel so much better," said Walker.
It's gotten so bad that Walker is on the Family Medical Leave Act. Just a couple weeks ago she suffered for four days straight.
"You can't be a part of a church group, you can't plan to go on trips, you can't do things with your grandchildren," said Walker.
Although Dr. Richard Salazar of Montgomery's Jackson Clinic Neurology doesn't treat Walker, he sees about 150 migraine-related patients a month and gets at least two new migraine referrals on a daily basis.
"Migraines are actually a neurological disorder like Parkinson's. It's a neurological disease that affects the brain chemicals and also affects the neural pathways. High sensitivity, visual stimuli, auditory stimuli, even sensory stimuli, those are common triggers," said Dr. Salazar.
There's plenty of medication available, but Walker says she's embarrassed by the list of pills she has to take.
"We've only had one real class of medication that's been designed to treat migraine and those just treat the attack, they don't actually suppress the attacks from happening," said Dr. David Dodick, Chair, American Migraine Foundation.
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"The head, above the eyebrows, the hairline, the side of the head, in the back of the head, in the back of the neck and the shoulder area," explains Dr. Salazar.
Unfortunately, Walker had short-lived success with the injections.
"It was the third or fourth time, oh my goodness, it was like somebody was driving a nail into me every time and it's 30 shots," said Walker, wincing in pain just thinking about it.
So that leaves patients like Walker back to square one with nothing to do but monitor triggers like diet, sleep, exercise and stress.
"It's not really a problem with blood vessels, it's not a problem where blood vessels dilate and it causes pain the pain actually occurs within the brain itself," said Dr. Dodick.
Dodick, who also works as a Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic and also serves as President of the International Headache Society, says studies have identified a future treatment that blocks a specific protein in the brain.
"Finally we may be on the cost of a new generation of treatments that actually targets an underlying problem that generates a migraine so were ushering in a new era of hopefully disease specific therapy," said Dodick.
The protein that's released from the nerves is called CGRP and according to Salazar, the method is currently in phase three of clinical trials.
"That protein when you block that protein or when you block it from binding with its receptors think of the procedure as a key and the receptor of the lock so when you either take away the key or you block the lock you prevent we think the activation of pain fibers in the brain," said Dodick.
"Hopefully within a year, or less than a year, we can approve it," said Salazar.
Which, when she's not fighting off a migraine, is music to Walker's ears.
"I pray every day that my migraine will subsist and I can keep my job," said Walker.
Some migraine sufferers say they've found relief from what's called a Daith piercing, which passes through the ear's innermost cartilage fold but results seem to be mixed in the medical community.
"There's no medical data to back that up. There's some people that believe that where the ear is pierced happens to be an acupuncture point but in my experience, having seen patients who have had that procedure done, just as many if not more people don't experience relief as do experience relief," said Dodick.
"It's hard to know how much of it is a placebo effect or how much of this is a true effect from the intervention itself," said Salazar.
The American Migraine Foundation recently launched what's called Move Against Migraine, to empower individuals living with migraine to advocate for themselves to find the support and treatment they need.