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Heart Defect Is Linked to Some Cases of Migraine Headache

A severe migraine attack can be agonizingly painful and accompanied by extreme light sensitivity and powerful nausea. Medications control some people's headaches, but// for some sufferers no drug completely prevents debilitating attacks.

For such people, hope may come from a new clinical trial, conducted in part at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The trial offers an unexpected solution — doctors are closing a hole in the heart to try to fix the ache in the head.

About 600 million people around the world, including some 28 million Americans, get migraine headaches. Physicians and researchers suspect a link between migraines and a particular heart defect in some people.

The defect is called a patent foramen ovale or PFO. A remnant of fetal development, a PFO is a hole between the two upper chambers of the heart and is generally smaller than a pencil eraser. In about 25 percent of people, the hole stays partially open after birth, leaving a PFO, a tiny, flap-covered passage between the atria.

“A PFO serves as a strain valve,” explains John M. Lasala, M.D., Ph.D., who oversees the Washington University portion of the migraine/PFO study. “If the pressure gets too high on the right side of the heart, the PFO can open, and blood can travel from the right to the left side. We think something usually cleared out by the lungs is in that blood and can trigger migraines.”

Estimates now hold that PFOs are present in about half of migraine sufferers who experience aura — an arc of zigzag lines in the visual field, numbness of one side of the face, weakness or altered consciousness — and in about a quarter of those who don’t have aura with their migraines.

Early results from a set of ongoing British clinical trials of PFO closure in migraine patients found a 37 percent reduction in migraine frequency and duration. Now the Washington University School of Medicine is one of 13 centers cond
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