If you do not suffer from migraines, then you do not know the pain.
I have suffered from migraines for the past 15 years, but although I have been to numerous specialists, undergone what felt like every test known to man, and tried various medications, the episodes I was experiencing were only diagnosed as migraines late last year. One of the reasons for this is that they do not present themselves in the way that most people think. I’ve had headaches of various types and degrees of severity. ‘Traditional’ migraines too, where nausea and blurred vision accompanied the splitting headache that made it impossible to do anything but curl up in a dark and silent room.
Although I knew that everyone has had different experiences when it comes to illnesses, migraines included, it had never occurred to me just how different and varied those experiences and symptoms could be. It definitely didn’t occur to me that I could have more than one type of migraine. Unfortunately, there are many myths and misconceptions that contribute to the negative stigma associated with migraine sufferers. Here are some of the more common ones.
It’s just a bad headache.
Umm… No. While a migraine can include a headache of various severities, it doesn’t always. If there is a headache involved, it is not always the predominant symptom either – this is one of the reasons they can be hard to diagnose. Other symptoms include: fatigue, irritability, sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, difficulty concentrating or forming words, paralysis, blurred vision and other sensory dysfunctions, pain, nausea, vertigo, and dizziness – the list goes on. A migraine is so much more than just a bad headache. It is a neurological disorder.
Migraines don’t last for days, and nobody has a migraine every day.
The word “migraine” actually refers to the diagnosis of a neurological disorder. Many professionals used labels such as “episode” or “attack” to describe the symptoms that manifest, but sometimes it is just easier to refer to them as migraines. Patients can suffer from one, a few, or many migraine “attacks” throughout their lives, or they can have daily ones. At my worst, I was suffering from migraine symptoms every couple of days. The typical “attack” can last from 4 to 72 hours, and they can last longer. Sometimes, they can last days, weeks, or even months. While the symptoms themselves can be debilitating, I know I would be wiped out for the next few days at least, partially thanks to the stress and energy spent getting through it.
It’s not a migraine without an aura.
An aura refers to a set of symptoms that may occur before the development of an intense headache during an attack. They’re often visual, but can also appear in other forms of sensory, motor, or verbal disturbance. While not everybody is aware of the association between migraines and auras, HeadacheMD and blogs on migraine.com list it as a top and persistent myth, once people do know. In fact, less than 30 per cent of migraine sufferers experience auras. Additionally, those that do get them, don’t necessarily experience them with every attack. From personal experience, I also know it can be hard for the migraine sufferer to identify whether they have an aura or not.
Any physician can diagnose and effectively treat migraines.
The migraine is one of the most under-recognised, underdiagnosed, and undertreated disorders. According to the World Health Organisation, this is primarily due to the lack of education and training among health-care providers. In my personal experience, they can also be misdiagnosed and mistreated because of this. A lot of doctors, including specialists, do not know what to look for. It has also been mentioned that, unfortunately, many do not take migraines seriously.
A specialist may be good to see about a diagnosis and treatment, especially for an illness that could be slightly more complicated than your GP feels comfortable dealing with. However, specialists operate within this very neat little box, and rarely venture outside of it. They often do not even consider that you might be suffering from something else, outside of their little box. So, it is important to make sure that you see the right specialist for any illness you might have – note that not all neurologists are migraine specialists and not all migraine specialists are neurologists.
Migraines are limited to adults and women.
Although it is less common, men and children also suffer from migraines. I had my first attack when I was 11. Neurologists have found adult women outnumber men sufferers 3 to 1, but boys and girls experience migraines equally until puberty. Estrogen is known to be a significant trigger, however, it is not the cause. Experts do not yet know what actually causes a person to develop migraines.
Migraines are caused by psychological factors such as stress and depression.
Stress is a common trigger, but, just like estrogen, it does not actually cause migraines. Many people with migraines are calm and easy-going, and manage stress quite well, but will still suffer attacks many times each month. A migraine is not a psychological or psychiatric disorder, but one which results from biological and physiological alterations. I’m pretty sure that in my case, my migraine attacks cause more stress.
This list is by no means exhaustive, there are many myths and misconceptions that surround migraines and the attacks that the disorder causes. Everyone’s experience is different but I hope this helps people gain a little bit more of an understanding.