Accidentally-discovered procedure yields migraine relief




Posted on February 6, 2013 at 6:10 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 6 at 10:00 PM

DALLAS — Stacy Cook, a 32-year-old mother of three boys, lived a life behind closed curtains, shuttered blinds, and dimmed lights as she suffered through agonizing migraines.

"Our house was dark. We had curtains that were never pulled open. It was sad," she said. "It wasn't just about how hard it was on me; it was hard on my family, too. But it's better."

Things became better because of a groundbreaking surgery that has changed the lives of many patients suffering from headaches in North Texas.

About 30 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches. Women are affected almost three times more often than men, according to the National Headache Foundation.

For many, medicine doesn't work. Botox, used to paralyze headache-triggering muscles, doesn't last.

A procedure called nerve decompression is offering more permanent relief. The procedure was accidentally discovered during a facelift surgery.

"A plastic surgeon noticed his forehead-lift patients — being done for cosmetic reasons — are migraine-free," explained UT Southwestern plastic surgeon Dr. Bardia Amirlak.

Amirlak is among a handful of doctors performing decompression surgery.

The procedure entails severing tiny muscles and other tissues pressing on and irritating headache-trigger nerves. The incisions are hidden beneath the forehead hairline and behind the nape of the neck.

"By relieving the pressure on the nerve, you actually improve that," Amirlak said. "Usually, the response is right away, and the patients feel the response that the migraines or chronic headaches are gone."

Dr. Amirlak said migraine surgery is covered by some insurance companies, but is considered experimental by others. Without insurance, migraine surgery starts at $5,000, depending on how many trigger points are addressed.

The procedure is being done on migraine and chronic headache-sufferers. Pediatric headache patients are also considered candidates.

"I see how it changes lives," Dr. Amirlak said. "It gives control of their life back to the patients. Somebody with migraine or chronic headaches, they cannot leave the house sometimes, they are disabled, they can't take care of the kids, they can't go to work. This really changes lives. And I'm so happy when I see a patient with results."

"Before the surgery, it was kind of hard on her," said Cook's nine-year-old son, Liam. "It makes me feel a lot happier."

"It has been life-changing to think straight again," Stacy Cook said. "It's allowing my children to have a functioning mother. And for me to be able to enjoy life again."

A few days after her December surgery, Stacy Cook opened the curtains and let the light in, headache-free for the first time in five years.

It's a blessing to her husband, Brian, too. "To know that tomorrow is going to be a good day really lifts the spirits and changes the aura of the house, I think."