I had my first encounter with the myths that surround migraine when I was in secondary school. One of my teachers didn’t believe that my migraine attack was anything more than a headache. He refused to let me go to see the school nurse and told me to stop attention-seeking.
I wish I could say that now, over twenty years later, I no longer come up against this kind of stigma. But I can’t. And you know what? I’m not the only one. For many, the stigma is still very much alive and kicking, and can be found in all levels of society.
This stigma is incredibly damaging for people with a migraine disorder in many different ways including their employment and relationships. It’s also often the reason why many migraineurs don’t seek treatment for their disorder and instead just suffer in silence.
That’s just not acceptable. You wouldn’t expect someone with cancer to just get on with things and not seek treatment…right? So why is migraine any different? Basically, people don’t see migraine as an actual disorder and that needs to change.
This is my contribution to the efforts already being made to get rid of the stigma around migraine for good! So if you want to find out more about migraine stigma and bust some myths keep on reading!
What’s the deal with migraine stigma? When did it start?
In order to understand the stigma that surrounds migraine, you need to go back to the 18th century. Before that migraine had been treated the same as any other disorder with none of the migraine sufferers being looked down upon.
Things changed in the 18th century, however with people seeing migraine sufferers as posh and self-absorbed. Migraine was seen as an excuse these well off and upper-class people used to avoid their social duties.
Think that’s bad? Wait it gets worse…By the 19th century, migraine was a condition that doctors believed was a weakness of lower-class women. It was widely accepted by then that women, in general, had much more delicate and weaker minds than men migraine were seen as a consequence of their struggles with the toils of their daily life.
During this time that doctors who continued to care for their patients were ridiculed and seen as old fashioned. Catherine Foxhall (a medical historian), says these physicians were believed to be doing nothing but encouraging their patient’s neurotic tendencies.
From then on migraine became more and more associated with women resulting in the negative stigma migraineurs suffer with to this day.
What are the most common myths about migraine disorders?
If you look up migraine myths and misconceptions on the web you’ll find that there are quite a lot. But some of them come up time and again and are also, in my opinion, the most harmful. These are the ones I’ve focused on in this post.
Myth #1 Migraine is just a headache
The first myth on this list is one that I have heard repeatedly throughout my life and I’m sure many other migraineurs say the same. Born from the belief that migraine was caused by a woman overloading her weaker mind with too many intellectual pursuits migraine became known as something neurotic housewives got.
Even though nowadays it’s accepted that migraine affects people from all walks of life the belief that migraine isn’t anything more than an exaggerated headache still persists.
It doesn’t help that many assume migraine affects everyone in the same way, so if one person is able to function during an attack then why can’t all migraineurs. Not only that but some people feel they have no option but to tough it out.
I’ve done this myself when I was worried I would lose my job if I took another day off. It was one of the worst work days I’ve ever had. I have no idea how I managed to get through the day considering I kept going to the toilet to be sick and felt as though my head was being crushed in a vice. The trouble is, by doing that I was only serving to reinforce the belief that migraines were just headaches that didn’t stop you going about your day.
The reality is that migraine is a neurological disorder that just happens to have a headache as one of the symptoms. Migraine attacks can include a wide variety of symptoms but some common ones (other than a headache) are:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Light Sensitivity
- Sound Sensitivity
- Speech problems
- Trouble concentrating
There are also several types of migraine disorder that don’t have a headache. Migraine Again’s website has a really useful series for learning about migraine. You can check it out here.
The fact that migraine doesn’t always even have a headache just proves that the myth ‘it’s just a headache’ is most definitely a load of crap!
Myth #2 Migraine isn’t as bad as you say it is
This one really does my head in (no pun intended!) The number of times I’ve come across this is too many to count. I’ve heard it from people who still believe that those who suffer from migraine are just weaker or have a lower pain threshold.
A classic example of this is when my then manager told me to take a tablet and stop moaning. Erm…when I say I feel as though my head is literally about to explode I’m not kidding (I actually thought it might during one attack the pressure and pain was that intense)
The other way I’ve heard this myth is when someone says “You’ve got a migraine? My so and so friend/hubby etc gets those. He just chills out for half-hour and then he’s fine.” Just because someone’s ‘auntie Jackie’s sister’s boy’ (thank you Hot Fuzz!) has migraine doesn’t mean that they have ANY idea what migraine is actually like.
For a start, they might suffer from a different type of migraine. The International Classification of Headache Disorders (considered the official classification of headache disorders by the World Health Organisation) lists several types and subtypes of migraine.
On top of that migraine affects everyone differently. Two people with the same type of migraine disorder will experience it differently to each other. Not only that but migraine attacks don’t always occur with the same symptoms every time. For example, the migraine attacks I get around my period are different from the ones I get at other times.
Want to read more about the different types? Want to explain migraine to someone else? Read my Beginners Guide to Migraine it gives you detailed info on migraine types, symptoms and more.
Myth #3 Migraine is your fault
This one is just so full of crap. It’s just another example of how those beliefs back in the 19th century are still around. Seriously they stick around like a bad smell. Want a way to avoid taking a disease seriously just make people feel it’s their fault that they have it.
You’re either weaker with a low pain threshold or you’re careless for not avoiding your triggers or you’re just neurotic.
But the truth is that it’s NOT YOUR FAULT.
You’re no more to blame than a person who has asthma or epilepsy! Migraine is caused by several different things with two of the biggies being your genes and your brain chemistry.
Also, it’s nearly impossible for anyone with a migraine disorder to completely avoid all of their triggers. Well maybe if they lived in a bubble… since most people aren’t able to live their lives in said bubble then all they can do is do their best when it comes to their triggers.
For example, if I’m going into town I have to be careful of the heat or cold, the lights, the noise and so many other things. Then there’s all of the other stuff like sleep, what food I can and can’t eat…you get the idea.
There’s A LOT that can affect a migraine disorder. The Migraine Trust website lists 13 of the most common triggers but there are many many more.
Myth #4 Over the counter meds are enough to treat anyone’s migraine
I really wish this one was true. It would life so much easier! But it’s not. At least not for everyone. I think this one comes back to how people assume everyone’s migraine disorder is the same. If the person they know with migraine can treat it with over the counter meds then everyone can right?
If your attack is a mild one (a mild attack for me is where I can take painkillers and lie in a dark quiet room and sleep it off) then maybe…maybe meds such as Ibuprofen will help. But again it really depends on how severe the attack is and what type of migraine disorder you have.
Hell, even some of the prescription meds available doesn’t work (triptans do absolutely nothing for my attacks) There is also the risk of medication overuse headache. Basically, if you take medications (such as painkillers) too often your body can become used to them and cause a headache if you don’t continue to take them.
Want to know more about medication overuse headache? The American Migraine Foundation has this really good article.
Myth #5 Men don’t get migraines
I think it can be easy to forget that the negative stereotypes developed around women and migraine are harmful to men too. Men have their own negative stereotype that they deal with generally (you know the one. Men are expected to be tough by pushing through pain and not being overly emotional) without adding migraine to the mix.
Because migraine is associated with being weak many men don’t feel like they can be open about their suffering. I remember a time when a friend told me about the time he told his friends that he had a migraine disorder. His friends responded by taking the piss out of him.
For those outside the UK, we brits take the piss out of our friends a lot. In fact, it’s often said ” “We wouldn’t take the piss out of you if we didn’t like you.” Those friends probably didn’t mean anything by it but it’s a good example of the stigma men experience.
Because migraine is seen as a primarily women’s illness men aren’t supposed to get them since that would mean they’re weak (hence the phrase man up)
Men DO get migraine disorders.
Yes, it’s true that more women have them than men (1 in 5 women and 1 in 15 men suffer from a migraine disorder) but there are still a lot of men out there living with the disease. Approximately 6 million people in the UK have a migraine disorder and at least 2 million of those are men. That’s a lot of men with migraine don’t you think?
What can we do to fight the stigma?
The stigma around migraine and the myths that exist because of that stigma are still far too common these days. For someone with a migraine disorder, daily life can be full of prejudice and it can feel like a losing battle. I’ll be honest I still have days when I just want to scream after coming up against them.
But it’s not all bad news. Things are improving with more people coming forward to tell their stories and advocate for migraine disorders. Organisations like The Migraine Trust, Migraine Again and others are continuously fighting for more funding for migraine research as well as working to educate people about the truth of migraine.
We’re not there yet though and as Tesco used to say ‘every little helps’ whether it’s just sharing info on social media or writing blog posts like this one. I really believe that one day we will be free of stigma and all of the myths will have been vanquished!
What myths have you come across? Have you helped fight migraine myths? Let me know in the comments below.
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