8 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Migraine
Everyone, whether they have migraine or not, should know these eight things about migraine.
1. “Migraine” is not synonymous with “bad headache.”
If a person has a bad headache, they do not automatically have a migraine. Migraine is a neurological disorder that 12% of Americans1 have and research increasingly shows that it is genetic. When someone “has a migraine,” they are experiencing an attack of this neurological disorder. If someone does not have the underlying neurological disorder, it is impossible for them to have a migraine attack.
2. Head pain is not the only symptom of migraine.
Impaired vision, nausea and heightened sensory sensitivity (to light, sound, smells and touch) are the most well-known migraine symptoms. But, because migraine is a neurological disorder, its symptoms can be felt in any part of the body – it can increase the frequency of urination, change blood pressure or heart rhythms and cause nasal congestion, brain fog, mood changes, temporary paralysis and many, many more symptoms. Not everyone has all of these symptoms and they can vary in each person during different migraine attacks. It’s even possible to have a migraine attack with no pain at all.
3. For 90% of people with migraine, attacks are disabling.
World Health Organization research found that the pain phase of a migraine is as disabling as quadriplegia2. This may seem melodramatic or impossible, but most people who have endured a migraine understand how accurate it is. Moving exacerbates the pain so much that even scooting over an inch in bed can be too painful to bear. Getting up to go to the bathroom or to get medication from another room can be nearly impossible.
4. Painkillers are not a panacea.
Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers help some people during a migraine attack, but not the majority of us. And “help” usually means that it reduces the pain somewhat, but does not eliminate the migraine. Adding caffeine to a painkiller tends to make them more effective. In addition, painkillers and caffeine can have a rebound effect, ultimately triggering more migraine attacks.
5. A migraine is not over when the most painful phase passes.
There are four distinct phases of migraine. The part most people are familiar with is the third stage, which is the most painful. The fourth stage is postdrome (or migraine hangover) and, while not as painful as the third phase, can feel as horrible as influenza, including a headache, heavy fatigue and impaired thinking. Postdrome usually last longer than the acute phase and, for some people, it can drag on for days.
6. During a migraine, thinking and finding words are difficult, decision-making ability is impaired, and a person can be extremely irritable.
These are among the migraine symptoms that few people recognize — even some people who have migraine don’t know about them — but they can have a huge impact on our interactions with others. Carrying on or even following conversations is difficult and we often seem angry when we’re not. This is partly due to pain and feeling horrendous, but the neurological activity in the brain during a migraine is the major culprit. Even when the pain lets up, it can take a while for our thinking to return to normal.
7. People who have migraine are not more stressed out than those without migraine.
Stress is unavoidable and it affects people in different ways. For those with underlying medical conditions — migraine, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis — stress may cause a flare up of that condition. For those who are otherwise healthy, stress can make a person sleep poorly, eat too much, or have a hair-trigger temper. Anyone, whether they have migraine or not, can benefit from learning to better cope with stress. It’s not that people who have migraine don’t manage stress effectively, but that migraine is sometimes their body’s response to the stressors that are inherent in being human. Many migraineurs don’t find stress to be a migraine trigger at all.
8. Lifestyle changes are often beneficial for people with migraine, but they aren’t always sufficient.
Dietary changes, exercise, eating at regular times, keeping to a sleep schedule and meditation can all help in the management of migraine. (All of those things could also probably improve the lives of people who don’t have migraine.) These changes alone are rarely enough to stop the migraine attacks completely. Also, some people have migraine attacks that are so frequent and severe that lifestyle changes are impossible to implement.
- American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study
- World Health Organization. The Global Burden of Disease, 2004 Update.