After almost a year, Brandy Albracht is finally able to enjoy the small pleasures in life, such as chocolate, a glass of wine, bananas, and milk.
Since her sophomore year of college, Brandy had experienced three to four migraine headaches a week. So, to avoid triggering a migraine, she meticulously tracked the foods she ate and was forced to give up several of the things she loved.
“When I began suffering from migraines, my lifestyle changed significantly,” said Brandy. “I was extremely sensitive to certain foods, noise, and even the weather. My friends always joked that I should be a meteorologist because I always knew when a storm was coming.”
Soon after establishing a career as a pharmaceutical representative, a position that required frequent travel, the debilitating pain of her migraines and the side effects of her medication began to interfere. While she tried several different treatments, such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and medications, nothing seemed to work.
Although Brandy’s mother-in-law, a cardiovascular thoracic surgery nurse, suggested a correlation between people who have holes in their hearts and migraines, Brandy didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until a colleague also mentioned this correlation that Brandy decided to have her heart examined.
Brandy sought help from interventional cardiologist Dr. Thomas Tu.
Dr. Tu performed a bubble echocardiogram,which revealed Brandy had an atrial septal defect (ASD)— a hole between her heart’s two upper chambers. A transesophageal echocardiogram, or TEE test, later showed the hole was much larger than expected and had caused one side of her heart to grow much larger than the other from having to pump harder.
“Brandy’s heart was showing early signs of hemodynamic compromise. Her condition was preventing her blood from flowing properly,” said Dr. Tu. “Due to the size of the hole in her heart and the risk factors associated with interrupted blood flow, I strongly recommended the hole be closed.”
Prior to the procedure, Dr. Tu explained there was no guarantee that closing the hole would eliminate or even lessen Brandy’s migraines. While some studies have found that closing atrial septal defects also reduces patients’ incidence of migraine headaches, the correlation between migraines and atrial septal defect is not fully understood. “There is a great deal of research underway, but we’re far from having a definitive answer on how or why closing the hole between currently the heart chambers may impact migraines,” said Dr. Tu.
“Brandy came to me to fix her migraines, but later realized the hole needed to be fixed regardless and, if her migraines did improve, it would be an added benefit,” said Dr. Tu.
“Dr. Tu said that if I did not undergo a procedure to fix the hole I could have a stroke within 20 years,” Brandy recalled. “That news alone was enough for me to make my decision.”
Brandy underwent a minimally invasive procedure where Dr. Tu inserted a small metal closure device into the hole in her heart through a thin, hollow tube called a catheter. During the procedure she was awake, and as Brandy describes it, actively engaged.
“I didn’t experience any pain,” Brandy said. “It just felt like someone was pressing on my chest.”
Brandy stayed overnight in the hospital and returned home the next morning. Within a month she was back to her active routine of running and boot camp exercise classes. Most importantly, the frequency of her migraines decreased drastically — by almost 60 to 70 percent.
“Now I have absolutely no fear of physical activity, and my exercise instructors are amazed at what I’m able to do. I’m also back to eating foods I love. I get to eat bananas now! I can’t even remember the last time I was able to eat a banana.”
“I am thankful my interventional cardiologist had the answer,” she continued. “I tell everyone that suffers from migraines about my experience and encourage them to be proactive about their health.
Of the thousands of babies born each year with a cardiovascular defect, 4 to 10 percent have septal defects (“holes in the heart”). In many people, the signs and symptoms may not occur until adulthood. Learn more about atrial septal defects here, including the tests used to diagnose them, the treatment options available, as well as the long-term care and follow-up care doctors recommend.