After suffering from chronic headaches for as long as I can remember — and being unable to get them diagnosed by multiple physicians — I finally decided to try a medical procedure to see if it might help.
This past Friday, after recent consultations with an ear, nose and throat doctor in Arlington, I had balloon sinuplasty, an outpatient technique that’s been around since the FDA approved it in 2005. It’s a noninvasive alternative to the painful drilling and scraping surgeries like my mother-in-law, Caryl — who turned 87 last week on Veterans Day — had 25 years ago to help alleviate chronic sinus blockages. I generally have two or three sinus infections a year, irritating in itself, but the main thing I’m eager to do is get rid of the almost-daily headaches I’ve lived with for so many years.
I initially went to the otolaryngologist, Dr. Allis Cho, in September about some occasional dizzy spells I’ve had the past couple of years. She’s very personable and really seemed invested in figuring out my problem. We got to talking about my headaches, for which doctors, including neurologists, have never determined a cause or found anything on scans including brain MRIs. She and I discussed the possible relation to my history of sinus issues and the fact that all of my headaches are around my eyes/forehead in the area where the sinus cavities are.
So Dr. Cho had me start doing daily sinus rinses to see if that would help, along with using Flonase, a spray most of you are probably familiar with for treating allergies (I don’t have any severe ones). She also sent me for a brain MRI that showed no problems in my brain or ear canals (so we still don’t know what’s causing the dizziness).
By my next appointment a month later, I’d seen no change in the headaches. I had a CT scan of my sinus cavities that day in her office, and when she read it with me, she said my sinuses are “tight” and narrow and she saw congestion and inflammation but no polyps. However, she saw enough to consider me a candidate for sinuplasty, which inserts a tube through both nasal passages and into the sinuses, where a balloon is inflated and expands the opening of the sinuses so they’ll drain better. The procedure is done with both frontal sinuses (above the eyes in the forehead) and both maxillary sinuses (behind the cheekbones).
Of course, Dr. Cho couldn’t promise this would be the answer to my headaches, but she felt confident in the possibilities — and said she’s had other patients with chronic sinus headaches/pressure whom the procedure has greatly helped.
Seeing as our family had already met its out-of-pocket max on our insurance deductible for the year, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try something with even an outside chance of zapping the headache pain that’s plagued me most of my life. So I made the appointment for Friday, then filled five (!) prescriptions — for antibiotics and steroids to take after the procedure; pain medication for before and after; and two meds, promethazine and triazolam, I’d be taking at home that morning for sedation about an hour before going to the doctor’s office.
By the time Kay drove us there at 8 a.m., I was already pretty drowsy. They called me back to the procedure room right away and Kay went with me — she said I almost fell when I was walking, which I don’t remember, so she held tight to my arm. They’d said she could be with me while my nasal passages were numbed up, which took about 30 minutes of sticking various foreign objects up my nose and waiting. Two were injections, which Dr. Cho said might feel like a pinch, but they didn’t hurt. I pretty much had my eyes closed the whole time, so I actually never knew what they were maneuvering up my nostrils. Sometimes there are things you’d just rather not see, right?
I can’t even remember if I was breathing through my mouth, but I must’ve been, considering my nose was preoccupied. I was alert enough to answer questions during the procedure about how I was feeling or whether something hurt, but I definitely felt extremely relaxed, not at all anxious (thanks, drugs!).
After the numbing was complete and the procedure was about to start, Kay was escorted back to the waiting room. It lasted only about 15 minutes. Although I’d been warned about the possibility of feeling pressure and some pain, I never actually did. One of the medical marvels that goes in is a tiny camera, which enables the doctor to monitor on a screen when the tube/balloon has arrived at its destination. At that point, she instructed the nurse to do the inflating, although I can’t recall what words the doctor used — I just remember the nurse saying “Up or down?”
The only strange sensation was when the balloon was inflated — which must’ve been four times for the four main sinuses. When that’s happening, it’s basically creating “microfractures” in the sinus cavities to expand the openings. My best description would be that it sounded like crackling that lasted only a couple of seconds each time. When I told our 17-year-old, Alex, about it later that afternoon, he said, “Oh, kind of like Rice Krispies?” I said, “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it!”
The paperwork said there might be bleeding and almost certainly swelling and congestion for a couple of days. I had some bleeding, but the biggest problem I’ve had since Saturday has been a lot of drainage and congestion. It’s like once they opened up my sinuses, the floodgates opened too! They want you to do the sinus rinse at least three times a day after the procedure. I’ve been having to blow my nose a ton, which I’m sure isn’t a good thing after having sinuplasty, so I’ve backed off on that today (Monday). They also say you can use Afrin to help clear up congestion, but as someone who’s used Afrin with sinus infections, I know it’s not something you should use more than three straight days.
I called the doctor’s office this morning to talk to the nurse, just to be sure what I’m experiencing is normal. She said it sounds like I’m having more drainage than I should be, but to give it a couple more days and see how things progress. She also said for me to stop blowing and give my nasal passages a rest, to which I said, “So what do I do when stuff’s dripping out, just sop it up?” and she said, yeah, do the best you can. I go back to the doctor for a follow-up Friday, so fingers crossed I won’t be as stopped up by then.
But my greatest hope is that this will turn out to be, if not a cure, at least something that will temper my headaches. I’ve been on a daily medication for a couple of years, and although it dulls my headaches, it definitely hasn’t gotten rid of them. Plus, the med — actually, a seizure drug called Trokendi XR — makes anything carbonated taste awful, which has slashed my occasional beer consumption down to zilch.
For those of you suffering from chronic sinus problems, I’ll keep you posted on how this works out, both in terms of the headaches and the congestion/infections. I hope to have positive news for you, in case it’s something you might want to consider. 🙂