By Atul Gawande
Haynes (I’ve changed his name, at his request) had his first migraine at the age of nineteen. It came on suddenly, while he was driving. He pulled over, opened the door, and threw up in someone’s yard. At first, the attacks were infrequent and lasted only a few hours. But by the time he was thirty, married, and working in construction management in London, where his family was from, they were coming weekly, usually on the weekends. A few years later, he began to get the attacks at work as well.
He saw all kinds of doctors—primary-care physicians, neurologists, psychiatrists—who told him what he already knew: he had chronic migraine headaches. And what little the doctors had to offer didn’t do him much good. Headaches rank among the most common reasons for doctor visits worldwide. A small number are due to secondary causes, such as a brain tumor, cerebral aneurysm, head injury, or infection. Most are tension headaches—diffuse, muscle-related head pain with a tightening, non-pulsating quality—that generally respond to analgesics, sleep, neck exercises, and time. Migraines afflict about ten per cent of people with headaches, but a much larger percentage of those who see doctors, because migraines are difficult to control.
Migraines are typically characterized by severe, disabling, recurrent attacks of pain confined to one side of the head, pulsating in quality and aggravated by routine physical activities. They can last for hours or days. Nausea and sensitivity to light or sound are common. They can be associated with an aura—visual distortions, sensory changes, or even speech and language disturbances that herald the onset of head pain.
Although the cause of migraines remains unknown, a number of treatments have been discovered that can either reduce their occurrence or alleviate them once they occur. Haynes tried them all. His wife also took him to a dentist who fitted him with a mouth guard. After seeing an advertisement, she got him an electrical device that he applied to his face for half an hour every day. She bought him hypnotism tapes, high-dosage vitamins, magnesium tablets, and herbal treatments. He tried everything enthusiastically, and occasionally a remedy would help for a brief period, but nothing made a lasting difference.
Finally, desperate for a change, he and his wife quit their jobs, rented out their house in London, and moved to a cottage in a rural village. The attacks eased for a few months. A local doctor who had migraines himself suggested that Haynes try the cocktail of medicines he used. That helped some, but the attacks continued. Haynes seesawed between good periods and bad. And without work he and his wife began to feel that they were vegetating.
On a trip to New York City, when he turned fifty, they decided they needed to make another big change. They sold everything and bought a bed-and-breakfast on Cape Cod. Their business thrived, but by the summer of 2010, when Haynes was in his late fifties, the headaches were, he said, “knocking me down like they never had before.” Doctors had told him that migraines diminish with age, but his stubbornly refused to do so. “During one of these attacks, I worked out that I’d spent two years in bed with a hot-water bottle around my head, and I began thinking about how to take my life,” he said. He had a new internist, though, and she recommended that he go to a Boston clinic that was dedicated to the treatment of headaches. He was willing to give it a try. But he wasn’t hopeful. How would a doctor there do anything different from all the others he’d seen?
That question interested me, too. I work at the hospital where the clinic is based. The John Graham Headache Center, as it’s called, has long had a reputation for helping people with especially difficult cases. Founded in the nineteen-fifties, it now delivers more than eight thousand consultations a year at several locations across eastern Massachusetts. Two years ago, I asked Elizabeth Loder, who’s in charge of the program, if I could join her at the clinic to see how she and her colleagues helped people whose problems had stumped so many others. I accompanied her for a day of patient visits, and that was when I met Haynes, who had been her patient for five years. I asked her whether he was the worst case she’d seen. He wasn’t even the worst case she’d seen that week, she said. She estimated that sixty per cent of the clinic’s patients suffer from daily, persistent headaches, and usually have for years...