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Migraine Research

Leah Sarich | posted Wednesday, Jun 22nd, 2016


June is Migraine Awareness Month. Migraine is very common. It affects 12 percent of the population, 18 percent of women. It’s recognized as a major source of disability because migraines are debilitating headaches that can last a few hours up to a few days and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraine specialist Dr. Werner Becker from the University of Calgary says there are three ways to tackle migraine. First, sufferers need to manage lifestyle factors like their stress, sleep and fatigue. Secondly, there’s treating the acute migraine with painkillers or triptans specifically designed for migraine headaches. Thirdly, there is prevention. Dr. Becker says there are a few ways they’re working to prevent migraines like injecting Botox into the heads of individuals who get chronic migraine or using certain heart medicines to reduce the frequency of migraines. But Dr. Becker says they’re not exactly sure how these strategies work.

But researchers are very excited about a whole new class of medications that are being investigated right now. They’re called CGRP antagonists. They’re drugs that target a specific molecule involved in the transmission of pain. Dr. Becker says because they’re so specific, they don’t involve other bodily systems which makes them have fewer side effects. They also seem to work very well to prevent migraine. So well, in fact, that in a small subgroup of patients these medicines stopped migraines from happening entirely.

That said, Dr. Becker says there will likely never be any one medication that works to prevent all migraines because these headaches are very complex and everyone experiences them differently. However, he says this new class of medication is extremely promising and he suspects they’ll be on the market in the next two to three years.

For more information on migraine headaches, visit this website. 

Stroke Drug Antidote

Leah Sarich | posted Monday, Jun 13th, 2016


June is stroke month. I’ve already blogged about the symptoms of stroke so people can get the care they need as quickly as possible. Today, we’re looking at a new medication that can help one group of patients at risk of stroke. People with atrial fibrillation or an irregular heart beat are at increased risk for stroke. The Department Head of Emergency Medicine at the University of Calgary, Dr. Eddy Lang, says there are about 350 thousand Canadians living with atrial fibrillation which makes them 3 to  5 times more likely to have a stroke.

Dr. Lang explains when the heart is not pumping properly a blood clot can form and that clot can travel to the brain causing a stroke. For this reason, many of these patients are on a blood thinning medication to reduce the risk of that stroke occurring. But these blood thinners leave patients at risk in an emergency situation. Dr. Lang says for example, if a patient has a stomach ulcer that starts to bleed or is in an accident that requires surgery, it make be too risky for the patient to undergo surgery for fear of bleeding out. Dr. Lang says the blood thinner is a double edged sword. It does reduce a patient’s risk of stroke, but it also leaves them at risk of bleeding in an emergency. Until now.

Dr. Lang says Health Canada has just approved an antidote to one of these blood thinners. The antidote, made from human antibodies, effectively and safely neutralizes the effects of the blood thinner allowing patients to get the care they need. Dr. Lang says it turns patients into someone who had never been on a blood thinner within a matter of hours, allowing that patient to perhaps have surgery if required or avoid the OR altogether. Then, once a patient is stabilized, they can return to taking their blood thinner to reduce their risk of stroke. Dr. Lang says this antidote is in widespread use in the US and should be available in Calgary in the next couple of weeks.

Dr. Lang encourages anyone on a blood thinner to prevent stroke to talk to their family doctor about their options so they’re prepared in an emergency situation.

Stroke Signs and Rehab

Leah Sarich | posted Thursday, Jun 9th, 2016


Fifty thousand Canadians suffer a stroke each year, over four thousand here in Alberta. June is Stroke Month and a great time to remind everyone what those stroke symptoms are so they can get the help they need as soon as possible. And if you’re going to have a stroke, you want to have it in Calgary. Our city has one of the leading stroke teams in the world based out of Foothills Hospital. And if someone recognizes they’re having a stroke and gets to the hospital in a timely manner, they have a better chance of survival because of this team.

I spoke with Dr. Stephen McNeil from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences who’s part of the stroke team. He says the most common sign of a stroke is sudden weakness, often on one side, though it can be just in the face or almost anywhere in the body. Other symptoms include sudden changes in speech or vision, balance problems and dizziness. Dr. McNeil says if a person is having these symptoms they need to get to the Emergency room right away so they can be assessed by the stroke team. Most strokes occur because  a blood vessel to the brain is blocked. So when a patient presents at the ER doctors are trying to work quickly to remove that blockage to reduce the amount of damage to the brain.

There are half a million Canadians living with post stroke deficits. But the stroke team at Foothills is prepared to help these patients return to the best quality of life possible. It’s a multidisciplinary approach to stroke rehabilitation. Depending on where the damage occurred in the brain, the stroke survivor will have certain deficits. Dr. McNeil says the most common deficits are weakness, pain, muscle stiffness, sensory loss, speech problems and changes in mood and behaviour. Dr. McNeil says there are many ways to help stroke survivors including various therapies, medications and injections. This rehabilitation can be done on an inpatient and outpatient basis and the therapies are most effective within three to six months of the stroke. However, Dr. McNeil says there can be improvements in speech and cognition years after a stroke.

Dr. McNeil encourages anyone who’s had a stroke to stay in touch with the stroke team because new therapies and treatments become available all the time that may not have been an option when the patient first went through rehab. He says it’s also possible for some stroke survivors to regress and they may require “tune-up therapy.”

For more information on stroke visit this website, for an outline of stroke signs and symptoms go here. 


Sun Safety

Leah Sarich | posted Tuesday, Jun 7th, 2016


It’s a hot one today in Calgary and it will be all week long. It’s also Sun Awareness Week, the perfect time to talk about staying safe in the sun.

Dermatologist Dr. John Arlette says 95 percent of all skin cancers are directly related to sun exposure. There are three types of skin cancer. The most common kind of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, then there’s squamous cell carcinoma and then finally the most deadly form which is called melanoma.

The good news is while skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer, it’s also the most preventable. It’s also curable in many cases as long as it’s caught early. But for Sun Awareness Week the focus is always on prevention. Dr. Arlette says the best way to protect yourself from the sun is with appropriate barriers, things like a big hat, sun shirts and sun suits for the kidlets and be mindful of the time of day, between 11am and 4pm leaves you at highest risk. In addition, Dr. Arlette suggests using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and then he says it must be reapplied within a couple of hours. Dr. Arlette says it’s also helpful to seek out some shade periodically or bring your own. Dr. Arlette says sun tents and umbrellas are great options when shade is hard to come by.

And here’s a tidbit for the parents: Dr. Arlette says if parents can prevent their child from getting a sunburn before the age of 14 they are dramatically reducing the risk of their child ever getting skin cancer.

And for extra motivation, sun exposure can also lead to premature aging of the skin creating all those little wrinkles around the eyes and colour changes on the skin.

Dr. Arlette also recommends regular mole checks particularly if you have a lot of moles, if you have a family history of skin cancer or if you have fair hair and light eyes and have had repeated sun burns in your youth. Skin cancer is all about cumulative sun damage so preventing that damage in the first place is your best defence.

For more information about being sun safe visit this website.

For the sunscreens recommended by the Canadian Dermatology Association visit this website. 


Gord Downie & Brain Cancer

Leah Sarich | posted Thursday, May 26th, 2016


Over the last few days, we’ve all be talking about Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip and his battle with brain cancer. But many of us have questions about just what kind of brain cancer this is and how could he be touring this summer? Neurosurgeon Dr. John Kelly explains Downie has a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma. It’s the most common form of brain cancer and also the most aggressive. It occurs in three in 100 thousand people. It can occur in any one at any age but is most commonly diagnosed in the 60 year old male.

There are reports Downie had a random seizure one day walking down the street. Dr. Kelly explains this is often one of the most common first symptoms of the disease, along with headache and neurological deficit. The location of the tumour in the brain affects what kinds of symptoms a patient will have because various parts of the brain control various parts of the body and mind. Usually what happens is a patient will have a seizure, recover from that seizure and then be taken to the ER to determine what caused that seizure. Imaging tests are done starting with a CT scan and then depending on what is revealed, the patient will get an MRI. The patient will then be put on anti-seizure medication and a treatment plan determined.

Downie has had surgery to remove the tumour followed by chemotherapy and radiation which is the standard form of treatment explains Dr. Kelly. Downie has responded very well to surgery, chemo and radiation, but Dr. Kelly says this is not always the case. Sometimes patients never wake up from the surgery or wake up only to have neurological problems that require care and some patients really struggle following chemo and radiation never returning to their previous life.

But Downie, according to reports, has responded very well to his treatment plan which is why he’s able to tour this summer. Is he cured? No, says Dr. Kelly. With glioblastoma, even though surgery has removed the tumour, it is impossible to get all of the cancerous cells. The cells are simply too small to be seen with imaging and that means another tumour will most likely grow. It’s also impossible to predict when this recurrence will occur.

For now, Downie as any patient at his stage of treatment, will be closely monitored with regular MRI scans so that the next tumour will be found as soon as possible.

For more information on glioblastoma visit this website. 

Summer Ready with Arthritis

Leah Sarich | posted Thursday, May 26th, 2016


With summer just around the corner, many people with arthritis are looking to get more active. There are over 100 types of arthritis but everyone with the disease can benefit from gentle and regular exercise, says Rheumatologist Dr. Olga Ziouzina.

There are two main types of arthritis. Degenerative arthritis, which is caused by overuse as well as normal aging of the joints, affects about 20 percent of the normal population and the most common kind is osteoarthritis. Inflammatory arthritis, which is caused by a malfunction of the immune system where the body attacks its own joints creating ongoing inflammation, affects about one percent of the population and the most common kind is rheumatoid arthritis. The joints in both types of arthritis cope better when the patient is moving regularly. Dr. Ziouzina explains staying fit ensures the muscles remain strong and the ligaments and tendons remain flexible which, in turn, support the joints better.

However, if the patient has been sedentary over the winter, it’s important to start exercising slowly. Dr. Ziouzina says to expect a little more pain at the start as the body strengthens and to treat the pain with over the counter pain medications as well as heat and ice. She also recommends joint protection devices like walking sticks to offload some of the strain on the joints.

Also, it’s very important to stay in regular contact with your doctor. Dr. Ziouzina says there are new medications being approved all the time for arthritis, so patients need to ask their doctor if there might be a new treatment option for their type of arthritis.

For more information on arthritis visit this website. To support those with arthritis, the annual Walk to Fight Arthritis is Sunday June 5th at Eau Claire Market. Click here for details.


Leah Sarich | posted Thursday, May 19th, 2016


Preeclampsia affects 5 to 8 percent of all pregnant women. For Preeclampsia Awareness Month, we spoke with the Head of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Calgary Dr. JoAnn Johnson about a new study underway that aims to prevent the disorder.

Preeclampsia can have serious consequences for both mom and baby. The disorder is characterized by a sudden onset of high blood pressure in a woman usually after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It’s associated with protein in the urine and can affect multiple organs including the kidney and liver. And in many cases, the only treatment is to deliver the baby prematurely which is traumatic for everyone involved, not to mention incredibly costly to the health care system.

Currently, doctors can determine if a woman has PE by checking her blood pressure and doing a urine test at her prenatal visits. In terms of prevention, doctors can determine which moms are at high risk of preeclampsia by looking at their risk factors: did they have preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy, are they overweight, do they already have high blood pressure…etc.  These high risk moms are then given low dose aspirin. But new preliminary research shows if aspirin is given to high risk moms before 16 weeks of pregnancy it can dramatically reduce preclampisa… early studies suggest by as much as 90 percent.  But this result needs to be proven in bigger studies.

The idea is to determine who is at high risk of preeclampsia early on, and then offer them this low dose aspirin. That’s why the research study, called the Prediction study, underway at the University of Calgary first needs to confirm that their assessment tool works here in Canada, if it does, then those women deemed high risk can receive treatment.

Researchers are looking for 1 thousand first time pregnant women, less than 14 weeks, here in Calgary to participate. There’s no risk to mom or baby. All the study would do is add an additional blood test and measurement to the first trimester screening. This additional testing would add about 30-40 minutes to their nuchal. Researchers want women to understand participating in this study would help future moms and babies.

For more information on the study and to find out if you’d be eligible to participate email predictioncalgary@gmail.com or call 403-943-8382.

For more information on preeclampsia go here.






Leah Sarich | posted Tuesday, May 17th, 2016


More and more Fort McMurray evacuees in evacuation centres across the province are coming down with an intestinal illness called Viral Gastroenteritis or viral gastro. The latest numbers of those infected can be found here from Alberta Health Services.  This is a viral infection that can be caused by several kinds of viruses… norovirus (the one often associated with cruise ships and daycares,) rota virus, adeno virus and more. These are viruses that are in the community at all times. But Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an acute care physician, explains the viruses are highly contagious and easily spread through confined spaces like schools and evacuation centres. He says the virus particles can live on hard surfaces for up to two weeks if not cleaned off.

The viruses cause unpleasant symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, stomach pain and nausea. While unpleasant, the infection usually only lasts about 2-3 days. But because it is so highly contagious, Dr. Bhardwaj says the best defence is good hand hygiene. He says washing hands with soap and water for 15 to 30 seconds, then drying hands with a paper towel and using that paper towel to turn off the taps and open the door is the best practice. It’s critical not to reinfect yourself leaving the bathroom by touching any surfaces. Hand sanitizers are less helpful because they’re often not used properly. Dr. Bhardwaj says with an alcohol based sanitizer, people must wet their entire hands including between fingers and under fingernails and then they must rub hands together until they’re dry. It’s also necessary for patients to isolate themselves as best as they can. They must also not prepare food for others.

And as for treating this infection, do not expect antibiotics. Dr. Bhardwaj explains viral gastro is a viral illness so antibiotics won’t work. The best thing to do is support the body while it clears the infection itself and that means staying hydrated. While it can be a challenge to keep water down, particularly in little kids, Dr. Bhardwaj says aim for just 1 tablespoon of water every 5 to 10 minutes. This is all the hydration the body needs to fight the infection on its own.

For more information on this illness read this fact sheet from AHS.


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