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Health care success stories told by the people who lived them


From Migraines to a Dramatic Health Transformation

Cynthia Anderson

Within the first few months of 2008, Cynthia Anderson was distressed. She had already exceeded her medical deductible. The culprit of the mounting doctor bills? Severe migraine headaches. She had dealt with migraines in the past, but she was always able to effectively control them. After a hysterectomy in 2007, however, she started experiencing migraines a few times a week. About twice a month, they were extremely debilitating. The symptoms were so unbearable, she began missing work. For a person working two jobs, this became a major disruption and financial threat.

Cynthia dreaded the onset of a migraine. Severe pain would start on one side of her head and radiate to the back. Her vision would blur so much that she couldn't function. "I'd be dizzy, nauseated, and it would make me feel really sick," she said. On one occasion, when the pain became so intense and uncontrollable, she went to the emergency room. She was hoping the ER personnel had a solution for the pain, and wanted to make sure the headache wasn't a sign of something more serious.

The ER doctor recommended she consult with a neurologist. So she scheduled an appointment, hoping he could find a possible cause of the migraines and an effective treatment. She and the neurologist discussed her symptoms and lifestyle. Right away he singled out one part of her diet as a potential culprit: her caffeine intake. Cynthia consumed several servings of caffeine every day. The brain adjusts to high amounts of caffeine, so when it doesn't get the usual amount, withdrawal can cause headaches. He suggested that she quit drinking caffeine completely. Though difficult, she followed the recommendation and it helped for a short time – but the migraines returned nonetheless.

The neurologist also sent her to physical therapy. He thought a neck strain from a past car accident could be part of the problem. She went for a couple months, working on strengthening her neck muscles and using heat and cold packs for relaxation. It helped relieve some of the stress of the migraines, but didn't get rid of them completely.

An eye-opening experience

Unfortunately, the headaches persisted. Desperate for answers, Cynthia made an appointment with a headache specialist. He recognized the intensity of her situation and was determined to find the cause of her migraines. He did a complete evaluation, which included a series of blood tests. The results stopped her in her tracks.

Cynthia was pre-diabetic, had high cholesterol and vascular problems that could affect her blood flow. She also was over 200 pounds at the time. These factors were putting her at risk for heart attack, stroke and heart disease. She had no idea her health was in such jeopardy.

To get a better look at her vascular problems, she was referred to three other specialists: an endocrinologist – someone who specializes in hormonal conditions – a heart specialist and a vascular specialist. "That really scared me," she said. "Here I am in these doctors' offices with all these older people who are on oxygen. I'm 49 years old. I'm thinking 'What am I doing here?'"

The endocrinologist tested her blood sugar. It was indeed in the pre-diabetes range, so the doctor prescribed metformin, a medication to lower blood sugar. A visit to a heart specialist added fuel to the fire. The results of her heart tests were normal, but just the thought of having heart problems at her age scared her.

The doctors determined that the hormonal changes from the hysterectomy were a part the reason behind her severe migraines – along with the other health problems that were starting to develop.

A new realization

The investigations into the cause of her migraines helped Cynthia realize she needed to make some important changes, and fast. She worried about her long-term health. "If you don't have your health, you don't have anything," she said. She took the medication for a couple of months and watched what she ate, keeping track with the help of a food diary. Cynthia's blood sugar levels dropped out of the pre-diabetic range. Her cholesterol levels improved, too.

Encouraged by her progress, Cynthia was ready to push herself even further. While on vacation, she read a book about the harmful effects of sugar. Starting then, she cut out all sugar and caffeine, went on a strict diet and started exercising. It worked – within four months she lost 45 pounds.

While proud of her shrinking waistline, Cynthia said her 13-year-old daughter was her biggest motivation. "She kept telling me how great I looked," she said. "I feel a lot better. Even when I eat sugar once in awhile – I do cheat sometimes – I feel really bad the next morning." Her success has only encouraged her more. She walks a half an hour every day during her lunch break and has stuck with her healthful eating habits.

Living healthfully is just a way of life for Cynthia now – and she has inspired others around her, too. Her daughter has become health-conscious, eating better and paying close attention to what she consumes. Her sister-in-law – an avid diet soda drinker – also read the book about the harm of sugar. A couple months later, she called Cynthia to tell her she was off the diet soda and felt so much better. "I try to encourage [people in my life] to get preventive care and have regular checkups. Early detection means you may be able to at least slow down a disease if you know you have a problem," she said.

With her health under control, Cynthia still experiences an occasional mild migraine, but nothing like they were before. But, what began as a search for answers about her migraines became a complete lifestyle overhaul. This past Christmas when Cynthia's family saw her transformation, they all commented on her amazing achievement. "They could see it in my face. My triple chin turned into a single chin," she chuckled.

Migraines affect 29.5 million Americans, and occur three times more often in women than in men. If you think you may be suffering from migraines, track your symptoms, how long the migraine lasts and the intensity of the pain. Management of the pain is possible, so it's important to talk with your doctor about the best treatment options for you.*

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