For one Rochester woman, a half-century of migraine pain came to an end, thanks to an innovative procedure
By Melissa F. Pheterson
Lynne Schicker was tired of breaking plans and promises because of her chronic migraines.
Seized with nausea and throbbing pain at 2 a.m., she knew with a sinking heart that “the whole day would go down the toilet.” The 68-year-old from Rochester had suffered excruciating headaches nearly every day since she was 18 years old.
“I tried every medicine and remedy out there; and some had very bad side effects,” she recalls. “I tried Botox and acupuncture; I went to the chiropractor. I wore mouthguards and a device that pulsated on my head.” She even had a hysterectomy at 46, when her local doctor suspected hormones might be the cause of her migraines. But the debilitating headaches persisted.
In 2018, she learned about Kaveh Alizadeh, MD, MSC, FAC, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).
Schicker and Dr. Alizadeh met first through video conference. “The first step identifying the correct treatment was to learn as much as I could about her 50-year history of chronic headaches and pain,” says Dr. Alizadeh, also the program director and co-founder of WMC Headache Specialists.
Then, he posed a question that Schicker says no other doctor had asked before: had she suffered head trauma at age 18, the year the migraines started? Yes, Schicker replied, astonished. That year she’d been in two car accidents, with a brain bleed that had created scar tissue. A third car accident, at age 26, had sent her head smashing against the windshield. “My right forehead always hurt during a migraine. Dr. Alizadeh was the only one to make the connection.”
Dr. Alizadeh suspected the scar tissue had entangled around the nerves running from the base of Schicker’s neck to her scalp, causing constant pressure and discomfort. He believed she would benefit from a surgical approach to addressing migraines. “Think about carpal tunnel syndrome, where people have tingling and chronic pain in their hands,” he says. “This is a similar concept with the nerves that provide sensation to your head. If nerves are under chronic compression, then disease of the nerves and pain can occur. We decompress or relieve those nerves so people can get their lives back.”
Lynne traveled to Dr. Alizadeh’s office to receive a nerve blocker. If this technique eased the pain, Dr. Alizadeh would be able to identify the impacted nerves and confirm if Schicker would be a good candidate for surgery. After two sessions, Dr. Alizadeh had the confirmation he needed. He performed the neuroplasty surgery in October 2019.
Schicker has been migraine-free ever since — able to honor her commitments, attend weddings, take care of her disabled son and aging mother, and spend time with her two young grandchildren. And most importantly, she is able to do it all without pain.
Patient-to-patient message: “I would shout from the rooftops that anyone with chronic migraines, who has tried everything, should know about and look into this surgery. None of my doctors had ever heard of it; but I encourage everyone in my Facebook support groups to connect with WMC Headache Specialists at Westchester Medical Center. I can resume my life and not live in fear of when the next migraine is going to hit.” – Lynne Schicker
What to Expect
Before: Dr. Alizadeh’s team will use methods such as ultrasound, MRI or CT scan to pinpoint the location and create a “road map” of the nerve as it crosses the brain and skull to provide sensation to the head.
During: “Surgery can take two to four hours. In that time, the goal is to find, isolate and decompress the nerves with precision tools and fine sutures,” says Dr. Alizadeh.
After: “Discomfort lasts up to a week. Most patients are back to their routine within a week, and fully recovered within a month. Patients are seen at the three-month mark, the six-month mark and the year mark.”
Migraines by the Numbers
Source: World Health Organization/Migraine Research Foundation
3:1 Ratio of migraines suffered by women vs. men
4 to 72: number of hours a migraine typically lasts
12: Percentage of the population that suffers from migraines
60: Dr. Alizadeh’s estimated percentage of patients who’ve stopped medications entirely after migraine surgery
600: Number of patients treated at WMC Headache Specialist center since the center opened in October 2017
The Future of Migraine Surgery
In addition to its potential to cure patients and change lives, migraine surgery has a broader impact. Dr. Alizadeh cites mounting evidence that it can mitigate the opioid epidemic, a major public health crisis in America, by breaking the cycle of dependence on opiate pain medications. “Like Lynne, patients move from one medication to another. All these drugs affect their whole body. This surgery helps them get off these lifelong medications.”
“People hear ‘surgery’ and ‘anesthesia’ and get scared,” Dr. Alizadeh adds. “The reality is, migraine surgeries can be as simple as most outpatient surgeries — but with outcomes as significant as we saw with Lynne. So, the most important question for patients in pain to ask is ‘Is my treatment enough? Am I getting the result I need?’”