Christy South, 33, spent years battling intense joint pain that resulted in multiple incorrect diagnoses and the eventual loss of employment. "They thought I had rheumatoid arthritis and then fibromyalgia,” she says, adding that, on top of joint pain, she began experiencing splitting migraines.
"I had to take some family medical leave from my job as a loan officer because the pain was so distracting I couldn’t concentrate. They eventually had to let me go.”
She found her way to Vincent Martin, MD, professor of medicine and headache expert at the University of Cincinnati, who gave her a diagnosis that led to the first step in recovery.
"He told me I had joint hypermobility syndrome,” she says.
"It was a huge relief to know what was truly afflicting me.” Joint hypermobility syndrome is a condition where joints easily move beyond their normal range. There is a genetic component to the illness, and it tends to run in families.
Genes that are responsible for the production of collagen, an important protein that helps to glue tissues together, are suspected to play a role. South’s vertebrae in her neck were unstable due to this condition and were believed to cause these headaches.
Brad Tinkle, MD, PhD, a physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a specialist in joint hypermobility syndrome, recommended a surgery to help fuse the vertebrae, and South says she notices an improvement in her neck pain as well as headaches.
She was even able to find another job this January.
"There may be an additional surgery, but at least I know what the problem is,” she says.
"I’ll also have to see what this means for my 6-year-old daughter, who also has joint hypermobility syndrome.”
South is the norm, according to a new study by Martin, Tinkle and colleagues that was published in the February 2011 edition of the journal Cephalalgia that showed people with this severe form of double jointedness have a greater chance of suffering from migraines.
"Preliminary studies suggested that headache disorders are more common in patients with joint hypermobility syndrome,” says Martin, who is not only a headache specialist at UC but also lives with the syndrome and experiences migraines.
"We wanted to determine if the prevalence, frequency and disability of migraine differ between female patients with the syndrome and a control population.” Using interviews and written questionnaires, researchers compared 28 women with the syndrome with 232 women from two primary care practices.
They found that 75 percent of patients with joint hypermobility syndrome also got migraines while only 43 percent suffered from migraines in the comparison group. After assessing age and gender differences in the groups, those with joint hypermobility had three times the risk of migraines.
Women in this group also experienced migraines nearly twice as many days each month and were more likely to experience visual disturbances called "aura" preceding the pain of a migraine attack.
"The results show that this common clinical disorder is strongly associated with an increased prevalence, frequency and disability of migraine in females,” he says.
"The patients in the study were selected from a specialty connective tissue clinic so our next step is to testing whether or not this is the same in less severe cases.
"In bringing attention to this link, we hope that patients can be diagnosed earlier, leading to quicker treatments.”