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just a headache

“It’s just a headache.” – why it bothers us so much

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.

Headache is 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 anyeurism.  If no physical problem is found, then they assume the complaining patient is exaggerating his or her symptoms.

Migraine doesn’t always mean headache.

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.

Just taking a pill won’t 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.”

Unsolicited advice isn’t 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.

It makes it difficult to be believed.

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”.

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

Comments

  • Macbeck
    3 years ago

    I had to go to urgent care yesterday and corrected both the medical assistant and the doctor that this wasn’t “Headache”, it was “Migraine.” Sick as I was I remembered to correct them! {figurative pat on my back}

  • GrassRootsMomma
    3 years ago

    Husband and I are both migraineurs, and so, though our migraines present completely differently, we completely empathize and help the other when an attack happens. Fortunately, we’ve only had overlapping migraines on the rare occasion. We’re making sure our two kids understand to the best they can, and then making sure our younger child (who got his first migraine at age 6) was well taken care of and informed about migraine and how to deal with it – in the way that seems to work best for kids – for the next time. We’ve also got a mostly supportive extended family, though I have heard the “Well, I just take tylenol and lie down and then it’s gone.” when I’ve commented on having a migraine. I have a tendency to downplay the frequency of migraines, as I can’t afford the doctors visits nor the prescriptions that might help, and I’m tired of being told to go to the doctor.

  • jns192 moderator
    3 years ago

    GrassRootsMomma,
    Thank you for reaching out. We are sorry to hear that both you and your husband deal with migraine attacks- though it is so sweet that you are able to help each other through it.
    It is wonderful that you are both striving to explain the disease to your children and how they can best deal with an attack. I thought you might enjoy these articles on migraine in children: https://migraine.com/blog/yes-kids-can-have-migraines/https://migraine.com/blog/pediatric-migraine-research-updates-prevention-treatment-diagnosis/

    While it seems like most of your family is supportive when it comes to migraine, it can still be frustrating when they downplay its severity. We understand that doctors visits and prescriptions can be quite costly, there are some resources out there that may help!
    If you haven’t already we encourage you to check out Partnership for Prescription Assistance at https://www.pparx.org and Needy Meds at http://www.needymeds.org/index.htm which may provide financial assistance with your treatment.
    You may also wish to check for specific manufacturer provided coupons or discounts that may be available. I’ve personally done this and have cut down the cost of cambia from $75 per Rx to $20!
    If you need to find a more affordable migraine specialist, feel free to check out our directory: http://migraine.com/blog/looking-for-a-migraine-specialist/
    Warm regards,
    Jillian (Migraine.com Team)

  • Tish
    4 years ago

    This always causes me to just shake my head (figuratively) as I usually can’t with a migraine. Nothing you say will ever change their mind and this may include family members, which is really frustrating! So after 71yrs, I’ve had to learn how to live with the shaking of heads when they speak of me being “sick again” tsk tsk! So frustrating, but true.

    Friends or other people, you can just accept as uninformed.

  • Kim
    4 years ago

    This has been something that truly bugs the tar out of me. I can’t work in an office due to migraines. It’s a landmine field of triggers. I wish I could just have a ‘headache’. Even headaches turn into migraines and when the difference isn’t understood, it is frustrating. I’m grateful for my husband’s partnership in my migraine life. He has only had 2 migraines and that was enough for him to recognize the difference. Since, he will turn lights off, help me undress, turn on the a/c and check on me for fresh cold packs or water. If I tell him I need to get away from a scent, get out of the sun, have the fan blow a different direction, he doesn’t fuss because he’s been with me in the ER and whatever we can do together to avoid that is the course we take. When others thing ‘it’s just a headache’ I know I have him in my corner and that makes other’s ignorance a little more tolerable.

  • Holly H.
    4 years ago

    Good article. Migraine is as similar to a headache as a destroyer is to a fishing boat. It is a neurological disorder and its effects are systemic, pervasive, and debilitating. When I first moved to my senior apartments tower, I was met with much skepticism. However, after observing my daily struggle for several months now, several are “reading” my eyes, speech, and body language and are telling me, “Uh, oh, it’s a bad migraine day.” Or, if I can talk and laugh for a bit, “You must be having a decent/functional day.” Thank the Lord for those folks.

  • Julie
    4 years ago

    The problem with those who are uneducated is that they are (sometimes) prescribing medication and writing disability policy and continue to do to so under the misinformed assumption that migraine = ‘just a headache’. This is how lack of education has real impacts on the lives of those of us living the realities of migraine disease.

  • Sarah
    4 years ago

    The best response I have ever gotten from one of my managers was (in the midst of everyone trying to help…because they think they know what I can’t even verbalize half the time…and giving advice) was to simply look at me and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like. Do what you need to do to keep yourself functioning. If that means sitting inside where it is cool and quiet to help for a bit, do it. Keep us posted on how you’re doing, and if you need to go home, we’ll make it happen.”

  • Luna
    4 years ago

    No sense being annoyed with people who do not know about migraines. They just need to be educated. If they won’t be educated then they aren’t worth any energy.

  • Sarah
    4 years ago

    Perhaps, but my biggest issue is that I still have to deal with the uneducated and those who think they are but aren’t and those who don’t want to be educated…at work, on a daily basis…and sometimes the stress of not being understood properly is enough to trigger one.

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