The Power of Pets to Ease Migraine Stress
A nurse practitioner makes her way through the migraine remedy maze—with help from some furry friends.by Avery Hurt
Allison Strider, 28, is an accomplished nurse practitioner who’s had to fight migraine every step of the way. But that hasn’t stopped her from enjoying her life and caring for others, including the multitude of animals she’s been living with lately.
“There’s constant pet therapy at my house,” she says, describing the comfort she finds in the company of her dog and 10 cats.
But life wasn’t always this way for Strider. In fact, she struggled for four years, often with daily migraines, before she found relief.
Strider can’t pinpoint the exact moment she began having migraines. She says she’s always had headaches, and they gradually worsened. But she does know when they became so unbearable that she had to seek help. She was working nights as a nurse and going to graduate school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) during the day, carrying a heavy course load.
“By my second semester of grad school in 2016, I was taking ibuprofen up to the max so that I could work and study,” she recalls. The ibuprofen didn’t make the headaches go away, but made them somewhat more tolerable. Still, when Strider sat at her desk at work, she kept ice packs attached to her head with elastic bandages. It didn’t take long for all that ibuprofen to take its toll. Strider developed an ulcer. That was when her primary care provider put her on migraine medication—a preventive and an acute med—as well as a drug for nausea, which in addition to pain, dizziness, and light-sensitivity, was one of her more prominent symptoms during attacks.
A Search for Relief
The medications worked well—at first. The migraines lessened in intensity and frequency. But then Strider started her clinical rotations, which meant a new schedule. Her week was split into working days and nights, and her migraines worsened since irregular sleep and lack of sleep are top triggers for her. With her doctor’s OK, she began taking more than one dose of the acute drug. She also started taking ibuprofen again, hoping it would help.
Looking back, Strider says she waited too long to act, but eventually she told her doctor that the headaches were getting worse and the meds were no longer working. The doctor recommended either a different preventive medication or a referral to a neurologist. “I know how long it takes to get in to see a neurologist,” Strider says. “I told him I’d take both.”
Her doctor added a second preventive medication, and Strider got some relief from the two drugs. But things were still not going well in 2019 when, after an almost yearlong wait for an appointment, she got in to see a neurologist at UAB Medical Center, where she works overseeing outpatient infusion services. Her neurologist added a monthly preventive injection and changed both her acute and nausea medications. Fortunately, Strider has experienced a great deal of relief as a result.
Lately, she’s had a headache only about once a week—a huge improvement from almost daily migraine attacks. “I’m getting there,” she says. “I try to catch them early.”
Surviving Stressful Times
Around the time the neurologist adjusted her meds, Strider was going through a divorce. For most people with migraine, stress can be both a trigger and an effect: Stress brings on episodes, and living with migraine creates stress.
“Oh, it definitely worked both ways,” Strider says. The divorce “definitely didn’t help.”
The coronavirus made things even worse. “It was very strange going through a divorce during a pandemic,” Strider says. “The courts weren’t in session, so if we tried to go to court to figure out who got what, it would have been months dragging this out. We weren’t even in line to be one of the first cases when the courts reopened. So I agreed to things I normally wouldn’t have agreed to, just to get it over with.” It was worth it, she says. “Getting that out of the way did help the headaches. I feel so much better now.”
The coronavirus caused even more trouble at work. “When we started facing COVID at the hospital last spring, we were stressed to the max and super busy, running multiple clinics,” she says. “We continued to treat our patients who still needed infusions. We consolidated satellite clinics with our main campus, which is where I am stationed, and started new clinics to help treat our patients more effectively. During the last few months, we have started COVID clinics, a curbside drive-through clinic for injections, and an acute clinic to reduce ER admissions.”
All of this has made life with migraine even more challenging. But Strider has a built-in reminder—though it’s a very unpleasant one—to take care of herself. “If I skip breakfast and lunch, about one o’clock the headache starts coming on and I remember that I haven’t eaten. Or if I don’t drink enough water, I suddenly realize, ‘Allison, you’re dehydrated.’”
For Strider, dealing with migraine hasn’t been all about medicines. She has a lot of other tools in her belt. She rubs peppermint oil on her temples, which has a menthol effect and feels soothing to her head. She keeps on hand ice packs, caffeine, water, snacks—“all the regular remedies,” she says.
Light-sensitivity has always been one of the most troubling of Strider’s migraine symptoms. “When I worked the night shift, we always turned the lights down on the unit overnight, so that helped. The worst part was when the day shift came on, threw on the lights, and started shouting, ‘Good morning, everybody!’”
In her current day-shift job at UAB Medical Center, Strider has an office where she can control the lights. “My coworkers know that if I turn the lights off, I have a migraine. When I turn the lights back on, they say, ‘Oh, you’re getting better!’” She also finds blue light glasses helpful for filtering the light from computers.
Besides highly supportive coworkers, Strider has a loving family and an awesome best friend. But her primary support network is not human. She’s long loved animals and wanted to foster them. But her ex-husband always vetoed the idea. She picked up her first foster pet the day he moved out. Since then she’s “gone a little wild with it,” she says. Right now she fosters a nursing mama with four kittens; a single kitten, Abby; and two sister kittens, Princess and Aria. This is in addition to her own dog (a Lab mix named Riley) and two cats (Jeffree and Ellie). “I have a full house,” Strider says, seemingly unaware of the understatement.
Strider does a lot for animals in need. But they definitely give back. She recalls the sadness of a recent workday when a gravely ill patient needed to be moved to hospice care. “To come home afterward and play with these little fluff balls was just good therapy.”
Though she hasn’t learned to cut back on work or giving to others (she also donates platelets to help relieve a shortage for the patients she treats), Strider has figured out how to manage her migraine so that she can live a full and rewarding life.