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SALEM COMMUNITY HOSPITAL...Migraines can mimic a stroke

February 27, 2011
Salem News

National attention has been drawn to migraines as a result of the recent Grammy awards telecast showing Los Angeles reporter Serene Branson garbling her words live on the air.

Many of those watching her televised report wondered if she suffered a stroke, as she tried unsuccessfully to form her words during the broadcast. However, doctors at the University of California, Los Angeles, who performed a brain scan and blood work on Branson, said she suffered a type of migraine - often called a complex or complicated migraine - which can mimic symptoms of a stroke.

"A migraine is a common type of headache that may occur with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light," explained Internal Medicine physician Jocelyn Shimek, D.O. "For many people, the headaches start on the same side of the head, while others experience pain behind the eye or in the back of the head or neck. These headaches usually feel like they are throbbing, pounding, or pulsating; and start as a dull ache that gets worse and may last anywhere from 6 to 48 hours."

Other symptoms that may occur during or after a migraine headache include:

-Chills or sweating

-Increased urination


-Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting

-Numbness, tingling, or weakness

-Problems concentrating or trouble finding words

-Sensitivity to light or sound

Aura: Migraine's Early Warning System

"Some people who get migraines have early warning signs, called an aura, before their headache actually begins," Dr. Shimek continued. "One of the best known aura symptoms of a complex migraine is visual disturbances, which may cause migraine sufferers to see sparkling light or wavy lines.

"Another lesser known symptom of a migraine aura is called dysphasic language dysfunction. This occurs when people know what they want to say but they can't get the words to come out clearly. Dysphasic language dysfunction is very similar to aphasia, which can signal a stroke or a tumor. Aphasia refers to a disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language."

Not every person with a migraine experiences aura symptoms, and a migraine headache does not always follow an aura. Those who do experience aura symptoms usually develop them about 10 - 15 minutes before their headache starts.

When it Mimics a Stroke

Migraine headaches are a risk factor for stroke in both men and women. "Even though they are not very common, a complicated migraine can masquerade as a stroke or transient ischemic attack, called a TIA or mini-stroke," Dr. Shimek advised. "With this type of migraine, the symptoms can look very similar to a stroke, including loss of or blurred vision, paralysis on one side of the body, or difficulty with speaking or walking.

"A complex or complicated migraine is caused by abnormal brain activity, which can be triggered by stress, certain foods, or environmental or other factors. Like a stroke, a complex migraine can disturb blood flow in the brain. However, unlike a stroke, these blood flow changes don't reach the point where they actually damage the brain.

"The big difference between a stroke and a complicated migraine is that the effects of the migraine are completely reversible. However, only an experienced health care provider can determine whether your symptoms are due to a migraine or another condition."

Contact a Medical Professional Immediately if:

-You are experiencing "the worst headache of your life"

-You have speech, vision, or movement problems like loss of balance, especially if you have not had these symptoms with a migraine before

-Your headaches are more severe when lying down

-The headache starts very suddenly

"There is no specific cure for migraine headaches," Dr. Shimek advised. "The goal is to prevent migraine symptoms by avoiding or changing your triggers."

Migraine attacks may be triggered by:


-Allergic reactions, including food allergies

-Bright lights or loud noises

-Certain odors or perfumes, including exposure to smoke

-Changes in hormone levels

-Changes in sleep or meal patterns


-Physical or emotional stress

"If you do get migraine symptoms, try to treat them right away, since this may help to lessen their severity," she concluded. "When symptoms begin, try to drink water to avoid dehydration, especially if you have recently vomited. In addition, migraine sufferers often find relief by resting in a dark, quiet room and placing a cool cloth on their forehead. Many different medications are available for people with migraines. These medicines are used to reduce the number of attacks, stop the migraine once early symptoms occur, or treat the pain and other symptoms. Check with your physician as to the treatment that is best suited to your individual medical needs."

Jocelyn Shimek, D.O., is a board certified internal medicine physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff. Her office is located at 2380 Southeast Boulevard in Salem, 330-337-7807.



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