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June 15, 2016

A terrible match: My pregnancy and my migraines

Battling severe headaches is always a pain, but expecting makes it way more complicated

Women's Health Katie's Baby
Katie_Gagnon_011 Tatiana Gladskikh/for PhillyVoice

Bedridden, adverse to light and sound, nauseous and sick with impaired vision … at my worst, I have more than a dozen migraines a month.

Early in my pregnancy, I was warned that headaches are a common symptom experienced by expecting mothers as a side effect of hormone fluctuations. This news really worried me. Severe headaches have always been part of my life, having been diagnosed with migraine headaches at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when I was 7 years old, but I feared the pain would get worse during a time when my body was going through a lot of changes.

My life completely stops when I have a migraine. Bedridden, adverse to light and sound, nauseous and sick with impaired vision … at my worst, I have more than a dozen migraines a month. I’m affected by changes in the weather and barometric pressure, by dehydration, by stress and not getting enough sleep. After trying many different prescriptions for prevention and treatment, I was given Maxalt by a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston just before I turned 30. I was skeptical about trying Maxalt because no medication had worked before, but it proved to be life-changing for me.

As soon as I discovered I was expecting, my doctor said I couldn’t take Maxalt while pregnant, and the only pain reliever I should take is acetaminophen. So I returned to the strategy I’ve employed for most of my life when battling a migraine: hot showers, long stints in bed in a dark room, cool compresses over my eyes and relaxation techniques I learned through biofeedback. Basically, I just ride it out until the migraine subsides. So far during my pregnancy, my migraines have held steady at one every other week or so, sometimes lasting for a couple of days. I’ve had a few really bad ones, but that’s normal for me in the spring when the weather is changing.

I assumed I just had to keep soldiering through my pregnancy migraines until I talked to my obstetrician about it again. She told me that I could take Fioricet, which just so happens to be the medication I was prescribed when initially diagnosed at CHOP. I was grateful to know I had a safety net to turn to but decided I would take the prescription sparingly, if ever. My doctor assured me that it is safe for pregnant women, but I’m a pretty neurotic first-time expecting mother and I found some mixed information about it online. I filled the script in case of emergency, but I also discussed alternative treatments with my OB/GYN.

Ryan Gagnon/for PhillyVoice

At 26 weeks pregnant, Katie Gagnon is trying her best to fend off debilitating migraines.

Acupuncture has previously worked wonders for my migraines, and at my mom’s encouragement, I’ve returned to it during my pregnancy. In my 20s, I started seeing Sharon Sherman of Empirical Point Acupuncture in Philadelphia because my headaches were so debilitating and were really interfering with my life. Sharon was the first person to help with the frequency and severity of my headaches. After clearing acupuncture through my obstetrician, I commenced bimonthly appointments in my second trimester. Not only has acupuncture helped again with my migraines, it also promotes overall wellness, balancing both my physical and mental health during pregnancy.

I also turn to doTERRA PastTense Tension Blend essential oil when I am dealing with a migraine, which I cleared with my doctor before using it. My sister Colleen sent it to me after it was recommended to her as a holistic tool for helping with headaches. Meditation is something I employ when I’m battling a migraine, and the smell of PastTense assists with calming and centering me when I’m in a lot of pain. At the onset of a migraine, I apply it to my temples and the back of my neck. The aromatherapy is enhanced by its cooling sensation.

My migraines have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s taken some time, but I’ve developed a pretty good plan for battling headaches given my new circumstances. If you have migraines, or are dealing with headaches during your pregnancy, I recommend you talk to your doctor about Western treatments and Eastern alternatives that may help ease your pain. And I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips about how other expecting mothers are handling their pregnancy headaches, too.

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