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When it comes to migraines, we are bombarded by myths and confounded by misconceptions. These myths aren't just irritating to migraineurs, they confuse the public perception of this disorder, making it harder to live with migraine and impounding an already difficult problem.
These myths increase the stigma of migraine, a stigma which already paints migraineurs as slackers, unable to cope with life; as sickie-throwing, lily-livered weaklings unable to do the grown-up thing, which is (painkiller adverts on the television assure us) to take two Aspirin and get on with it.
What does stigma do to migraineurs?
123 patients of the Jefferson Headache Clinic were assessed on the Stigma Scale for Chronic Illness. Patients with Chronic Migraine (migraine occurring more than 15 days a month) were found to experience more stigma that patients with Episodic Migraine. They also experienced more stigma that patients with other chronic illnesses, such as stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's Disease.
Author, Dr. Jung E. Park explains how stigma occurs with migraineurs:
"...co-workers and employers...think the person is trying to get more time off for something unimportant...
A husband felt that things weren't the same when his wife couldn't have sexual intercourse... When something impacts functioning like this, and is not well understood, we tend to stigmatize."
Myth 1: "It's just a bit of a headache."
A migraine will never be diagnosed as "migraine" with no symptoms beside headache. A headache with no other neurological symptoms (such as sensitivity to light, sound, or smell; speech problems, or weakness) may have many causes, but migraine will not be one of them. Headache is only one possible symptom of this neurological disease.
A migraine has four distinct possible stages: prodrome (the initial disturbance) aura (where you may experience visual disturbances), the attack phase (where headache may occur), and postdrome (the aftershock).
Additionally, it's possible for migraines to occur without headache. These migraines are called "acephalgic" (or silent) migraines. These migraines may bring visual disturbance, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, vertigo and confusion, but there is no headache.
Myth 2: "Oh, come on. It's not like it can kill you."
Migraine is linked to a higher risk of stroke, with more than 1,400 migraineur women dying annually with heart disease, compared to those who don't have migraine. Additionally, migraineurs (with aura) are three times more likely to commit suicide, even if they do not have depression.
Myth 3: "Migraine is a white women's disease."
Across all populations (that's how scientists talk about race), women are more likely to experience migraine. A study by Stewart and colleagues (1996) found an average 20.4% migraine-rate in Caucasian women, compared to a 16.2% migraine-rate in African-American women and a 9.4% migraine-rate in Asian-American women. In men, the rate was uniformly lower (but still significant) across all populations, the migraine-rate was 8.6% for Caucasian men, 7.2% for African-American men and 4.2% for Asian American men.
This shows that migraine is far from being the "white woman's" disease it is frequently derided as.
Myth 4: "Children can't get migraine."
Migraine does not only affect adults. 10% of children experience migraine, and one-quarter of these children experience recurrent attacks. Additionally, almost 50% of adult migraineurs had their first attack by their 12th birthday.
Myth 5: "People with migraine are high-strung nervous-wrecks who should see a psychiatrist."
Ah, the "migraine personality". Coined by Victorian-trained doctors, who thought migraines were psychosomatic, they decided that migraineurs were high-achieving, as well as "high-strung, perfectionist, anxious worriers". and (though our understanding moved on) the reputation kind of stuck.
More recent research indicates that there is no one type of person who gets a migraine. Unfortunately, we migraineurs may have to give up our high-achieving crown, too: episodic migraineurs are 38% less likely to be employed, less likely to have a higher degree, and less likely to make at least $50,000 a year.