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Singing Through the Pain

The Migraine Journey of Kelly Leigh
Someone Very Special Taught Her that Singing Could Help Her Through Her Chronic Migraine
By: Lindsay Weitzel, PhD

When I first spoke with Kelly Leigh she was nothing like the person I was expecting to meet. I had done enough research to know that Kelly had lived much of her life with chronic migraine and she came from a rather famous family. I did not expect the overwhelmingly kind and vivacious person whose voice I heard on the other end of the line. Nor did I know how unique and exciting her story was. I was in for a treat.

Kelly Leigh is a professional country music singer who grew up in Nashville, TN and started singing and making music when she was five years old. Like many of us, she was inspired by her family, except in Kelly’s case her uncle happened to be country music singer Johnny Cash.

Kelly’s mother, Reba Cash Hancock, was Johnny’s younger sister. Reba worked as his personal assistant from 1960-1995. Kelly recently completed her mother’s memoir titled: Johnny Cash’s Gatekeeper: The Reba Cash Hancock Story. As a youngster, Kelly traveled on the road with her mother and uncle and was surrounded by music and the entertainment industry.

Kelly’s mother and father both suffered from chronic migraine. Sometime between the ages of 13-14 Kelly also began to experience migraine attacks. The last 10 years have been the hardest for her. She experiences numerous attacks each month and has not had any luck identifying migraine triggers. For Kelly, the most difficult part about living life with migraine is that they always come at what seems to be the worst possible time. Her migraine attacks give her very little warning. They usually hit hard at very “inopportune times” when she is in public or on an airplane.

According to Kelly, Johnny Cash had his own difficult journey with chronic pain. His jaw was accidentally broken during a dental implant procedure. Despite various surgeries to help correct the problem, he suffered from “constant pain” for much of his life. He once told Kelly that the only time he felt relief was when he was singing, and that the act of singing “took him away and eased his pain”.
For many years Kelly did not want to sing in public because she felt intimidated by her talented family. Living in Johnny Cash’s shadow, she never felt quite “confident enough or good enough” to step out on her own. Once Johnny and his wife June Carter Cash were no longer on stage, she got the itch to sing. She began by performing at music festivals in Nashville and is performing an original song at the Johnny Cash Music Festival in Dyess, Arkansas in October.

Three years ago Kelly was alone at home and in terrible pain from a migraine attack. As she paced through her house trying to cope with the pain, Kelly began to sing. It took the focus off her pain, comforted her, and eased her suffering. Until that moment she had forgotten what Johnny had told her about how he sang to cope with his pain.

Kelly now uses music and singing regularly as a means to cope with migraine. She says that while she is normally quite sensitive to sound, the vibration that is created by singing helps her feel better. The music also comforts her, transports her to another place and makes her happier. Kelly believes there should be more research in the area of migraine, pain, and music therapy. In the meantime, I think I might give it a try.

Click here to listen to an episode of HeadsUp with Dr. Lindsay Weitzel and Kelly Leigh.



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