Migraine or Sinus Disease?

A fractal suggestive of visual changes associated with migraines.

One of the more common reasons patients come to see me is because they think they have a sinus infection. Often they say they have pain in the sinus below their eye, nasal congestion, and may have drainage. They¬† tell me that they’ve had it before, and antibiotics help.

Careful questioning often reveals that they are really have a migraine headache. Typically they start as a teenager or young adult, and tend to decrease in frequency and severity in the 40’s to 50’s. They may occur on one or both sides of the head, and are often associated with nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and sometimes people get blurred vision or see white spots or zigzag lines. Going to sleep helps. Migraines are more frequent in females and tend to run in families. If patients are unaware of a family history of headaches, I tell them to ask their mother, sister or daughter because they may just not have mentioned it.

Patients think antibiotics help because their headaches get better a few days after they start the medicine. But migraines generally only last 4 hours to 3 days if you don’t take anything. So the antibiotics get the credit, when none is due.

Sometimes the pain from a migraine goes into the neck, or it’s only felt there, and patients think they have a neck problem. They may go to a chiropractor or massage therapist before they see me.

Migraines are also confused for sinusitis because nerves from the brain that are activated with migraines can stimulate the nose to cause congestion. ‘Sinus Headaches’ was invented by Madison Avenue (or at least some advertising agency) to sell pills. Outside the United States, you won’t find such pills being advertized or sold. Some people truly have headaches from sinus infections, but many headaches thought to be sinusitis, are really migraines.

There are lots of ways to treat migraines, which I won’t discuss in this article, but first you have to get the diagnosis right.

If you have headaches or neck pain, be careful about telling your doctor that you think you have a sinus infection or neck arthritis. You may just convince them you’re right, when maybe you’re having a migraine.

Glazed Donuts

A couple of pharmaceutical reps brought us lunch to discuss their new product, a testosterone gel that’s more concentrated, and thus lower volume, and applied to the inner thighs. Referring to their main competitor, that uses a larger volume applied to the shoulders and upper arms, one of the reps said that by using his product instead, one could avoid, “that whole glazed doughnut thing.”

Fine Tuning

A typical internal medicine patient has multiple medical problems, such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Each visit I try and see if there is something to tweak. Perhaps the blood pressure is a little high or the cholesterol is not at goal. Maybe I can switch a medication to a similar one that recently went generic, or use a combination pill to simplify their regimen. I might correct the vitamin D deficiency I usually find, have them change their aspirin to an enteric coated one to lessen the risk of an ulcer, or try and persuade them to get a vaccination to prevent shingles. Most of us have room to improve when it comes to diet and exercise.

With each visit the patient is a little older, and on average, a little sicker. I hope my fine tuning, and occasional overhaul, will keep them going longer and healthier. In the rare visit where the patient has no complaint and I can’t find something to do, I feel like I’m forgetting something. The visit takes longer than it should as I struggle to come up with something other than telling them keep up the good work. That’s usually appreciated by patients, though.

Over-the-Counter Lipitor?

According to sources in the Wall Street Journal this week, Pfizer said they would apply to sell Lipitor over the counter. This is a bad, bad idea. Lipitor is in the class of medications commonly called statins. Although it’s an excellent drug, it can have serious side effects, including liver and muscle damage. Presumably an OTC dose would be low, and less likely to cause side effects, but it’s still likely patients would inadvertently take it in addition to statins prescribed by their doctor, or along with red yeast rice, a naturally occurring statin.

Even if there was zero risk of side effects, there is a high risk that patients would not use the medication properly. Lipid (cholesterol, triglycerides (fats), HDL (good cholesterol), LDL (bad cholesterol), etc.) management can be quite complex. One should know medical problems that might exacerbate the problem, such as diabetes and thyroid problems. There are many medications to choose besides statins, and different ones work better for some people than others. Then you have to know how aggressively to treat, which depends on the risk of cardiovascular disease, among other things.

Over-the-counter Lipitor would certainly be cheaper than the current prices, but it would likely be more than the generic price. Even if priced below generics, it could cost consumers more because their insurance would likely not cover it if it was available over-the-counter. This is what happened with the antihistamines Allegra and Zyrtec, though generic Claritin (loratadine) is quite cheap now.

So given all the down sides, why would Pfizer try to get OTC Lipitor approved? I wonder if it could have anything to do with their loss of patent protection when it goes generic 11/30/11?! Fortunately it’s unlikely the FDA will fall for this.