For those who suffer from chronic migraines, they have most likely experienced the stigma surrounding the condition at least once in their lifetime. To others, they may assume the sufferer is just seeking attention or lessen their pain by saying “it’s just a headache.” Migraines are more than “just a headache.” They can result in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light, sound, or smells, and fatigue. Migraines can prove debilitating to those suffering and impact their daily lives.
When others can’t see the physical ailment, such as an open wound or broken bone, and have never experienced a migraine themselves, it can be difficult to understand what the sufferer is going through, but it is important to show support and compassion.
What is the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache?
While on the outside, a headache and a migraine may seem the same, they are not. A headache is just one symptom of a migraine. Common types of headaches include tension headaches with the pain spread across the sides of the head, sinus headaches which result in pain behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes, and cluster headaches, which may happen multiple times a day.
Headaches typically have specific causes, however, migraines have triggers and may be harder to determine the exact cause. Migraines typically occur in phases, however, that doesn’t happen for everyone. The prodrome phase or pre-headache phase may happen before the migraine arrives and includes mood swings, cravings, and stiffness. The next phase is the aura phase and may affect a person’s senses such as vision, touch, or speech. The headache phase follows and is when the pain intensifies. The final phase is postdromal and may leave a person feeling exhausted or confused.
What Causes Migraines?
Preventing migraines is easy, you just need to avoid the triggers, right? Wrong. While outsiders may try to put the blame on you for the migraine by suggesting your diet, alcohol intake, stress, or sleep schedule is the fault, a migraine can be unpredictable and strike at any time. There are several factors that may contribute to a migraine, but “migraines are a neurological disease that involve nerve pathways and chemicals,” and don’t always have an obvious cause.
Approximately 12% of people have migraines but women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men and this may be due to hormonal changes. Some women may experience migraines before or during their menstrual cycle, as well as throughout pregnancies.
Other possible causes of migraines are genetics or environmental triggers. If the condition runs in your family, there is a chance you may suffer from it as well. Changes in diet, stress, sleep, or weather can also bring the onset of a migraine.
How Can I Break the Stigma?
The stigma surrounding migraines can impact your relationships at work, in your home, and with friends. They may not always recognize that their statements are hurtful but educating them and being open and honest about your feelings can go a long way.
Some hurtful statements may include:
- “I get headaches too.” Migraines are more than just headaches.
- “Go take some Advil and come back to work.” A migraine is a valid reason to call out of work and over-the-counter medication is not always effective. Instead of offering things for the sufferer to try, instead ask how you can help them.
- “It can’t be that bad. You look fine.” Only a sufferer knows how they’re feeling on the inside and not believing them is incredibly hurtful. This can add shame and prevent them from being honest about it in the future.
When you receive a statement similar to the ones above, politely address how it makes you feel. Educating yourself on migraines can help you further communicate the truth to them. If you can not find the support you need from those in your life, look into joining a support group or talking to a professional. You are not alone in this.
Is There Treatment?
When it comes to treating migraines, it can be difficult to find effective aid. Over-the-counter medications such as Advil or Tylenol may work for headaches, but they can’t always resolve the pain from a migraine. A doctor may be able to prescribe a medication to help relieve or prevent migraines, but those aren’t effective for everyone either.
If you’re aware of the triggers that produce migraines, you can make lifestyle changes to reduce or prevent migraines. These may include changing your diet, improving sleep, exercising regularly, and avoiding or managing stress.
Research is ongoing for migraine treatment and at the Lehigh Center for Clinical Research, we’re always enrolling for new clinical trials. Learn how you can get involved.