Why “It’s Just a Headache” Bothers Us So Much
Last updated: June 2023
Nothing irritates a migraineur more than this statement. It tops the list of “what not to say” nearly every time. If you have never experienced a migraine attack, you might be wondering why that statement is so offensive.
Why is "headache" trivialized by society?
The term is used to refer to anything that is annoying, a nuisance, or an irritant. That’s because headache itself is viewed as a nuisance – something minor that creates an inconvenience. The term isn’t understood as something serious. The general public still believes that severe headache pain must be caused by a tumor, stroke, or aneurism. If no physical problem is found, then they assume the complaining patient is exaggerating his or her symptoms.
What makes migraine different?
Not finding a physical cause helps to confirm the diagnosis of migraine. Our attacks can include mild, moderate, or severe headache pain. Sometimes attacks don’t come with any headache at all. They are still horrifically disabling. Migraine attacks can include partial paralysis, partial blindness, blurry vision, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, fatigue, word loss, aphasia (inability to speak or find words), problems understanding the spoken word, mood swings, anxiety, extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and odors. Any of these symptoms can be so severe that they are more disabling than the accompanying headache.
Why doesn't just taking a pill always work?
The common attitude is that just taking a pill will get rid of a headache. When someone complains of a headache, the typical response is to offer an OTC pain medicine such as Tylenol, Aspirin, Advil, Aleve or Excedrin. To most people, there is no difference in the effectiveness of any of these medicines. While some lucky migraineurs can get relief from Excedrin, most of us need a prescription triptan, ergotamine, or NSAID to stop an attack. Yes, technically Aspirin, Advil, and Aleve are NSAIDS. However the OTC strength is rarely strong enough to abort a migraine attack. In short, the offer of “just take a pill” feels like an insult because those pills are worthless to help us. When we decline the offer, we are then accused of “not trying to get better.”
Why isn't your advice always helpful?
It gets worse when people start sharing unsolicited advice about treatments and cures. Sometimes people mean well, but simply have no idea that the treatments that make the news have been around for months, if not years. Sometimes the suggestions are so ridiculous or insulting that we lash out in anger. Suggesting that we relax, eat better, drink more water, or try some silly remedy trivialize the seriousness of our disease. All of these suggestions have merit, but alone they will not relieve our suffering. It’s more complicated than that. We know it and it hurts us that you don’t, too.
How does it invalidate our experience?
When migraine is referred to as “just a headache”, it minimizes our suffering and invalidates our experience. Perhaps you can now understand that the idea that migraine is “just a headache” can lead to all kinds of assumptions. These assumptions make it appear as though our problem isn’t all that serious. When we try to convince people of migraine’s seriousness, we are accused of exaggerating or faking our symptoms. Even worse, we are called attention-seekers, crazy, or drug-seekers. These assumptions are even made by some healthcare providers, too. The stigma is so pervasive that most of us cannot find qualified doctors who actually believe us.
So please, stop saying that migraine is “just a headache”.
Are the family and friends you will be seeing this holiday season understanding about migraine?