New surgery helps teen escape pain of migraines

Posted Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Shelly Messerli, a mother of two, didn’t know how to help her youngest daughter, Meredith, who was suffering from chronic headaches.

The 18-year-old had been gleeful as a child. She played club soccer, volleyball, basketball and even tried archery in school. By her freshman and sophomore years, she had become a skilled bowler at Flower Mound High School.

But in her junior year, as if a switch had flipped, Meredith’s effervescence vanished. Her spirited life, like her family’s, grew dim. At home, the window shutters stayed closed because bright lights worsened her migraines. She became highly sensitive to light from lamps and the rays of the sun, even smells and noise.

“She lost two years of school,’’ Shelly Messerli said. “She didn’t go to homecoming. She missed her prom.”

Meredith felt so bad that she stopped eating and could not get out of bed.

“I just thought that I was really sick or that I had mono,” Meredith said. “The doctors told me, ‘You’re just depressed,’ or something stupid. I was really confused because I knew I wasn’t depressed.”

Medications to ease her migraines, while providing some relief, only dissipated her pain for a week or two. She tried more than a dozen drugs, from Vicodin to Naproxen to Tramadol. And she was hospitalized several times to undergo a seven-day cocktail of “last resort” medications.

“Those treatments were horrible, so painful and hard on my body,” Meredith said. “The biggest challenge for me during the whole thing was the emotional part of it. I was emotionally tired.”

Then, on June 18, Meredith underwent an experimental surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas — and, after a week or so, the headaches were gone. The procedure was developed in early 2000 by peripheral nerve surgeons and neurologists at Case Western University in Cleveland.

“We figured out that by decompressing the pressure on the nerves, on the forehead, the temple and back of the neck, it helps migraine patients,” said Dr. Bardia Amirlak, director of residency at the cosmetic clinic, department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UT Southwestern. Amirlak trained with the Ohio surgeon who developed the surgery and is now among a handful of surgeons in the world who are equipped to perform it.

Ohio studies report that 85 to 92 percent of patients experience at least a 50 percent reduction in headache frequency and severity after the surgery, and more than 50 to 60 percent of patients experience total relief. In the U.S., nearly 30 million people suffer from migraines and daily headaches.

“You have to exhaust everything else” before a patient should make a decision to undergo the migraine surgery, Amirlak said. “It’s not a knee-jerk reaction.”

Before encouraging her daughter to have the surgery, Shelly Messerli, a prosecutor at the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, did extensive research on the procedure. She is elated by the results.

“The physician removed two muscles from her forehead and cut some nerves to make tiny incisions that would rejenerate the blood flow,’’ Shelly Messerli said. “The goal was to make new pathways for the nerves, yank them out of the constricted muscle and allow the blood to flow.”

Meredith at first was skeptical about the surgery, she said.

“I didn’t want to do it because I thought it wasn’t going to work on me, but obviously I was willing to try anything. I was desperate,” she said.

By August, she was well enough to move into a dorm at Oklahoma State University, where she is studying microbiology.

“The whole experience, I feel like I maybe gained more wisdom,” Meredith said. “It really made me grow up.”

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard

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