Learning new strategies to cope with migraines

Tyler Stewart, sophomore at Tahoma, poses for a photo with Emily Law. - Courtesy photo
Tyler Stewart, sophomore at Tahoma, poses for a photo with Emily Law.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Tyler Stewart’s story toward fewer headache days

Imagine being a kid, you go to school, play sports and spend time with your friends and family.

Now imagine growing up, being a kid and also having to learn how to deal with migraines.

That’s what happened to Tahoma High School sophomore Tyler Stewart.

He was just 5 years old when he got his first migraine.

Migraines are described as chronic headaches that occur 15 or more times a month.

Tyler’s mom, Kelly Stewart, said when he was in kindergarten, he would get headaches so bad he would vomit.

Kelly said the vomiting would relieve Tyler of the pain, but as he got older his migraines got worse and more frequent.

Now at 15 years old, Tyler is learning tools and ways to help him better manage his migraines.

“If it’s been available, Tyler has done it,” Kelly said in regards to migraine treatments and medications.

There were times when Tyler was taking a total of nine pills a day to help with his migraines.

“I began to hate taking medicine,” he said. “I even hated taking Advil because it was just another pill to take.”

Even though he is needle-phobic, Tyler tried acupuncture to help lessen the pain caused by migraines.

Kelly said she was in “panic mode as a parent,” trying to advocate for her son. But now Tyler has learned the tools to advocate for himself, Kelly said.

It was becoming a domino effect, she said. Tyler would miss days of school, get behind and then become stressed, which would lead to more headaches.

Stress is a key trigger for Tyler that causes his migraines. Other triggers of his, he said, are seasonal and his diet, but most of the time he doesn’t know what causes them.

For example, summer is the time of year Tyler said he has the least amount of headaches.

Seattle Children’s Hospital

Tyler had been going to Seattle Children’s Hospital Neurology department since he was 7 years old.

But last June, he tried something new.

He met with Emily Law, a psychologist at Seattle Children’s Pain Medicine program and a researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Tyler spent time with Law learning how to “retrain (his) body to live life without pain,” he said.

He said one time while he was at Trampoline Nation, he got one of his worse migraines yet. He felt sick and couldn’t move.

After that incident, he didn’t want to go back because he had a negative connection with Trampoline Nation, now associating it to migraines.

Law told Tyler he needed to return to Trampoline Nation and when he did, he needed to go back with a migraine.

He went back twice and was able to trick his body that the pain he felt associated with his migraine was not going to harm him.

This same method could also be used with going to school.

As a freshman, Tyler missed 56 out of 180 days of school.

So far this year, he has only missed six, Kelly said.

“Without even noticing,” Tyler said. “I was teaching my body that school is an OK place to be.”

With chronic pain including migraines, Law said, our bodies are not sending the correct pain signals. Not all pain is dangerous to ourselves. She said when you stub your toe, break an arm or touch a hot stove there are clear start and stopping points and our bodies know what is causing the pain.

Because chronic pain is different, Law said you have to work to teach yourself the pain may be uncomfortable from a migraine but it will not harm you.

Biofeedback Program

Also during his time at Children’s, Tyler completed the Biofeedback Program with Law.

During this program, Tyler used memories and relaxation methods as a way to reduce the pain associated with migraines.

While he was doing this, Tyler was also connected to sensors that allowed him to watch his heart rate, temperature and breathing patterns.

“Biofeedback is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Tyler said.

Tyler said Law wanted him to imagine a place or memory and walk back through it.

He added that she “literally meant walking through it.”

During his memory of choice, Tyler would use all five senses and connect those to his thoughts.

What did it smell like, what did he feel and see are all things Tyler incorporated into his memory.

He said after walking through his memory during biofeedback, he would come out, “so relaxed…. It’s like inception. You’re in another world, it’s very cool.”

While hooked up to sensors, Tyler said during biofeedback he can control his heart rate, temperature in his hands, his stress level along with blood pressure.

Since working with Law, Tyler said he has been able to reduce the number of migraines he gets. He said, he has gone from one a day to one every two to three weeks.

These methods don’t solve every headache, he said, but he has been given the tools to help reduce the number of migraines and the intensity.

“Dr. Law really empowers them to take hold of their lives,” Kelly added.

Law’s strategies and tools gave Tyler the ability to change his thoughts and feelings.

“(They) gave him more control over pain and allowed him the ability to do things despite the pain,” Law said. “(We were) working toward how to live a normal life.”

Tyler is still on daily medications but it is significantly less now that he has other ways of coping with migraines.

School and Sports

The breaking point and what Kelly recalls as Tyler’s worse migraine was when he had to leave school by ambulance.

She said the teachers and school didn’t really know what to do.

Kelly said Law also helped the family by writing letters to Tahoma to help them better understand what he goes through and to help them understand what he needs to do to help himself and stay in school.

Kelly added the school has been very responsive and has helped engage ideas that will help Tyler succeed.

Through the methods Tyler learned at Seattle Children’s, he has learned that even if he has a headache he needs to go to school.

“She (Law) wants his body at school, even if only for part of the day,” Kelly said.

Already, his sophomore year is an improvement from last year. Not only has he attended more days, his GPA is also up, Kelly said.

“This has been his best semester yet,” she said.

Tyler has been participating in Tae Kwon Do for nine years now.

Kelly said that his time spent doing Tae Kwon Do had already helped him be more active. It allowed him to think “mind over matter.”

She added, this coincides nicely with what Law helped teach Tyler.

For children, Law said the parents initial reaction is to keep them home if they do not feel good.

“It works great with the flu or a short term illness but not chronic headaches,” Law said.

When children stay home from school their muscle become weak and they may get behind in their class work and may even start to lose friends, Law added.

“The goal of cognitive behavioral treatments is to engage in life more even when they don’t feel well,” she said.

This can also help families, often times conflict can arise in families that include children with migraines, Law said.

His migraines have, however, kept him out of some sports. Tyler said he wasn’t able to play football because of his headaches. And when he was younger, he couldn’t spend as much time outside as he wanted to because he would get migraines too often.

Now when Tyler gets a migraine, he starts with biofeedback. If that doesn’t help, he said he takes medicine early enough to help get rid of the pain. And then he will do something that helps to keep his mind from thinking about the migraine.

Family Connection?

Kelly said five months ago she was diagnosed with migraines.

Ever since, Tyler has been able to help her with coping mechanisms, she said.

This isn’t the first time Kelly said she has had a migraine. When she was 18 years old she got a migraine but this time she had one for nine weeks straight before being diagnosed.

She said there are other family members that also have migraines.

Law said migraines “often travel in families but it is just a correlation.”

She added there is emerging research looking into the genetics behind migraines but right now they do not have a good understanding of the connection.

The Stewart’s goal is to help at least one person by sharing Tyler’s story.

“He’s a good inspiration,” Kelly said.

Will Tyler or Kelly have migraines for the rest of their lives? According to Law it too hard to tell.

She has worked with some patients whose headaches completely go away, with those who have seen a reduction in the number of headaches and she has also seen patients where their headaches never go away.

“(However), from research we have seen that we can reduce the number of headache days and reduce the intensity (to ensure) a better quality of life,” Law said.

Law’s Work

Through Law’s work, she wants all families affected to have access to behavioral solutions and specialized pain care. Having these methods available online would help more families, she said.

“I’m very passionate about it,” she said.

Her goal is to make these treatments available to all children so they do not have to rely solely on medication.

Along with Tonya Palermo, professor of anesthesiology, pediatrics and psychiatry, Law co-authored a self help book for parents with children who suffer from migraines. The book is called “Managing Your Child’s Chronic Pain.”

The book helps teach parents strategies, similar to what Tyler tried, to help alleviate the pain their children are in.

“(The book is just) another avenue to reach out to every family who needs it,” Law said.

Similarly to the book, there is also a blog on Psychology Today by the same name (Managing Your Child’s Chronic Pain). This blog, Law said is, “meant to empower parents with children

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