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University of Mississippi

UM Psychologist Looks Ahead to Remedy Migraines

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin missed dozens of practices and a football game this past season because of migraine headaches.

Many fans complained, saying a young, strong NFL player should “suck it up and play,” but a University of Mississippi clinical psychologist says fans should give the 2009 Rookie Offensive Player of the Year a break. Migraines are far more than simple headaches and can definitely be debilitating, said Todd Smitherman, UM assistant professor of psychology.

“To put the pain in perspective, consider how intense the pain is after eating ice cream too quickly,” Smitherman said. “Migraines are also extremely painful, but unlike the typical ‘ice cream headache’ that fades within moments, migraines can last for hours, even days.”

With 12 percent of the U.S. population suffering from migraines, the condition costs Americans an estimated $15 billion annually in treatment costs and lost workdays.

But a proposed study led by Smitherman may eventually bring some relief for migraine sufferers. The researcher is studying whether a non-medication therapy targeting insomnia can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. The work shows such promise that the Migraine Research Foundation has awarded Smitherman a $50,000 grant for it. It was among only seven grants awarded from 40 proposals that came from around the world.

“We are thrilled with the caliber of the investigations in this proposal,” said MRF co-founder and president Cathy Glaser. “It represents a novel approach to unraveling the mysteries of migraines.”

Insomnia is relatively common among migraine sufferers, particularly those with frequent migraine attacks, Smitherman said. Indeed, doctors determined that insomnia triggered Harvin’s much-publicized migraine attacks.
Through his research, Smitherman hopes to develop a set of validated techniques that physicians can share with patients to help decrease the frequency and severity of their migraines. He hopes to share his recommendations with doctors following the one-year study.

“The grant essentially allows us to test whether a brief behavioral intervention targeting insomnia symptoms will be effective at reducing a person’s migraines,” Smitherman said.

Utilizing actigraphs, a relatively non-invasive method of digitally monitoring human sleep and waking cycles, Smitherman will observe subjects during pre-treatment, post-treatment and a follow-up period. Study participants will be recruited using referrals by Oxford neurologist Dr. Malcolm Rowland, who is consulting on the project.

“It’s an interesting, unique partnership between Ole Miss and a local physician,” Smitherman said. “We will also have graduate students administrating the treatments, helping expose them to how psychologists interact with medical patients.”

UM graduate student Lauren Flegle was diagnosed with migraines her senior year in high school, and she continues to suffer frequently, often twice a week. The 24-year-old native of Omaha, Neb., is pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

“When I get migraines, I feel a constant throbbing pain in the area behind my eyes and forehead,” Flegle said. “Sometimes I feel dizzy or unsteady, and when they are really bad, I can feel nauseous throughout the ordeal.”

These symptoms are typical for migraine sufferers, Smitherman said. Migraines are normally attributed to hypersensitivity of the trigeminovascular system, the nerves responsible for sensory perceptions in our face, and many times include sensitivity to light and sound.

Smitherman’s interest in migraine research began when he served a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. While working at UMMC’s Head Pain Center, Smitherman said he realized more scientific work was needed to better understand the psychological disorders that co-occur in patients suffering from migraines.

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