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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?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

‘Courtney Thorne-Smith Speaks Out’, accessed March 2003. — 2. Lipton, Richard B., Seymour Diamond, M. Reed, Merle L. Diamond, and Walter F. Stewart. 2001. Migraine diagnosis and treatment: Results from the American Migraine Study II. Headache 41: 638-645.


  • Steve L Campbell Jr
    8 years ago

    Hi everyone I didn’t realize how bad migraines were until I had a few. Its seems to effect more woman than men. several of the woman in my family have chronic migraines. I watch how they are constantly taking pills and it drives me crazy. there has to be a better way right. well check out this site I found.

    you have to try it it works. if you don’t agree it’s guaranteed..

  • Tamy Meadows
    8 years ago

    Why do people assume we haven’t tried to get better? I USED to have Migraine, until drug X, Y or Z, and NOW I”M PERFECT, ask your doctor about it right away! F that, I’ve asked the damn doctor for EVERYTHING. I’m not suffering migraine BECAUSE I WANT TO D(&MMIT.

  • Sally Heckman
    8 years ago

    Questions: Which has more serious consequences: to misidiganose a TIA for migraine aura without headache (so-called complex migraine) or to misdiagnose complex migraine as TIA? Also is it possible for a person to suffer from both TIA and from complex migraine?

  • Amrita Bhowmick
    8 years ago

    Hi Sally, The term “complex migraine” is often used to refer to migraine with aura (with OR without headache). You can read an overview by Dr. Marcus here:

    As for TIA, individuals who experience TIA could be at greater risk of having a full-blown stroke, one of many reasons getting a proper diagnosis is important:

    This being said, people who suffer from migraine are already at greater risk of heart disease so it’s important for everyone to be aware of their heart health:

    Risks associated with diagnosis (or lack there of) are specific to individuals so it is difficult to make generalizations, however I hope you will find this information to be helpful!

  • Jaylene Ancheta
    8 years ago

    What I really hated the most was when a migraine hit me at work and then I’d hear people snickering behind my back saying “Yeah, her migraine is just a hang over.” As if I was even like that. I was known as being very responsible and a hard worker yet, when I mentioned having a migraine, they really thought I was just hung over. If I hadn’t been in so much pain during those moments, I probably would have given them a good tongue lashing.

  • Joanna Scoby
    8 years ago

    Those Excedrin commercials are the ones that drive me nuts, too. Excedrin doesn’t even touch my migraines. They are so much more than just a headache. The nausea, disorientation, trouble concentrating, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, blind spots in my vision, freezing hands and feet, aura and extreme fatigue are things people with regular headaches don’t even think about. I wish people could physically see these things affect us, but they are invisible ailments that most seem to feel are made up. It’s so hard to try to make people understand that it’s usually just easier for migraine sufferers to just ignore someone’s comments and not explain.

  • EricandLindie Adamietz
    8 years ago

    Migraine is NOT just a headache but a total body malfunction! The pain in the neck and head is only one of the symptoms of the Disease, even as dibilitating as the pain can be. I wish people closest to me understood that.

  • Laurie Ashmore Epting
    8 years ago

    What bothers me is how so many people refer to ANY headache as, “Oh I have a migraine.” Or if I mention having them, they airily say they get those all the time. And the ever popular “Have you tried Execedrin?” Well-meaning, but jeez…do they think I’ve been having chronic migraine for 10 ys and not tried an OTC med? Always ends up making me feel dumb and whiny so I just mostly don’t share it w others.

  • Jaylene Ancheta
    8 years ago

    Excedrin Migraine is one of the first things I tried way back when. All it did was make my headache worse. That stuff is not for anyone who suffers chronic migraines. One of these days, somebody is going to sue them. There commercial mentions nothing about use for chronic migraines.

  • Karen Farmer
    8 years ago

    @LinEric and Laurie – I completely agree. The terrible headache pain is only part: nausea and sometime vomiting, loss of sleep as well as body aches from tensing in response to the pain (even though you try to “relax”) affects the entire body! And yeah, I think many people consider a bad what I refer to as a “normal person headache” a migraine – they are so different. I wish there were OTC meds that would help. I can’t even find prescription meds that are effective and after chronic migraines for the past 10 years I’ve tried so many. I don’t let anyone make me feel dumb about my condition – basically I’m in pain too often to care too much about what other people think (they just don’t understand and unless they experience it they never will) but having support and caring understanding from those close to you is so important for mental health if nothing else. Please continue to search for doctors who will take your migraines seriously and try treatments until you find success or a way to manage them. Don’t just suffer in silence because of others’ prejudices!

  • Anna Hendrix Warren
    8 years ago

    The one I hate is, “Oh, you have a “headache.”

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