Are migraines just for “silly women”?

Courtney Thorne-Smith is a television actress who has starred in several hit television shows, including the classic Melrose Place, Two and Half Men, Ally McBeal, and According to Jim. She’s also one of the few celebrities to speak openly about her migraines.

Like too many people with migraine, she put off seeking medical care. Why? In a 2003 interview, she explains:

“My fear was that I was just a neurotic woman ... I was scared to go into a doctor’s office and have them [say], ‘You silly, silly woman, there’s nothing wrong with you.’ That was my fear ... so I kept trying to fix it myself.” 1

Like actress Thorne-Smith, men and women with migraine often feel as though their pain will not be taken seriously, partly because migraine isn’t understood to be as legitimate as other conditions deemed more ‘serious.’ Studies suggest that lots of people are reluctant to seek care for her migraines: nearly a third of people with migraine had never consulted a physician for headache, and fewer than half are currently receiving medical care. 2

We don’t really know why people don’t see their doctor for migraines. But part of the problem might be attributed to a general sense of whether their headaches are serious enough to seek help and how the physician will react to their complaints. We develop this “general sense” about the world from different places, like conversations that we have with friends and family. But a lot of it comes from the way that headache is portrayed in popular culture. References to headache can be found everywhere, including advertisements for medication, self-help websites, books, magazines, common jokes, and everyday language.

So what do these “cultural representations” teach us about headache disorders? Most cultural references to migraine and headache relate back to stress, as in “This traffic is a headache.” Comments like this might lead the casual observer to believe that headaches are really just an aggravation, rather than something more serious.

More trying are references to those who have migraines as either malingerers or hypochondriacs, as in a cartoon I have in my files depicting a male patient asking his frustrated physician: “Right, that’s the headaches, stiff neck, lower back pain. Now what’s this hypochondria you were mentioning?”

And then there is my pet peeve: the constant references to headache as a way of avoiding sex, as evidenced by the classic punchline: “Not tonight, honey.”

Are there any cultural representations of migraine that drive you nuts?

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