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What Michele Bachmann has taught us about the politics of migraine

Reports that presidential candidate and Congressional representative Michele Bachmann has migraines has brought forth a tangled set of heady issues for people with migraine, including stigma, discrimination, sexism, and political leadership.

The news was revealed in a piece of dubious journalism produced by Tucker Carlson’s conservative website, the Daily Caller. There’s much to say about this article, but let’s just stick with the inflammatory headline “Stress-related condition ‘incapacitates’ Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged.”1

As Diana Lee notes on this blog, stress is related to migraine, but not in such a direct manner as is suggested by this headline. “Incapacitates” is a strange way to describe the ability of an obviously successful congresswoman. And I suppose that “heavy pill use” — phrasing to suggest addiction —refers to Bachmann’s use of regular medication to manage her condition. The headline unsubtly conjures the Victorian hysteric (in all of its sexist glory) in order to undermine Bachmann’s psychological and moral integrity.

Many advocates have been quick to point out that migraine is a neurobiological disease, the implication being that migraine has nothing to do with Bachmann’s rational mind. But this is not enough to remove the stigma of migraine from Bachmann’s campaign. If anything, describing migraine as neurological has raised new issues.

Take, for example, the coverage of Bachmann’s migraine in Politico, which raises the concern that “The issue may be complicated for Bachmann by the fact that the condition affects her brain and requires her to take psychoactive drugs.”2 (This, despite the fact that, according to Bachmann and Congress’ attending physician, she only takes sumatriptan and ondansetron, neither of which are psychoactive.)3

From this, we learn that migraine is stigmatizing, no matter if it’s understood to be a condition of the mind or a disorder of the brain.

Next, there is the question of whether migraine ought to disqualify a candidate for president. Bachmann has released a statement that unequivocally denies that her migraines impede her ability to work. But many people with migraine seem to be worried that Bachmann is doing a disservice to migraine by failing to admit just how disabling migraine can be.

The tension, here, is with legitimacy. We all want to be believed when we say we can’t work because of a migraine, so it would help if a political leader would stand up for migraine and say: yes, sometimes migraine incapacitates even me. At the same time, do we really think that people who have migraine can’t serve in executive positions? Several past presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Jefferson, have served with pain conditions.

If Bachmann’s migraines are under control, then let’s get on with analyzing her candidacy on substantive issues. In the meantime, I’d like to encourage Rep. Bachmann to use her position to advocate for migraine awareness and research. We are in need of politicians who know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of a widely ignored and misunderstood condition.

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.

Jonathan Strong, July 19, 2011, “Stress-related condition ‘incapacitates’ Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged.” • Kasie Hunt and Mollie Ball. July 20, 2011. “Bachmann faces more migraine questions.”, • Maeve Reston, July 20, 2011. “Bachmann given good bill of health from Congress’ physician,”,0,1764948.story


  • Jean Oliver
    8 years ago

    Oh, this really burns me up – the media using her migraines against her for political gain! Yes, I would love for her to advocate for her fellow sufferers but if she feels like she is not able to do that, it is her choice. I am a physician with chronic migraines and struggle to fulfill my duties and to take care of my patients – and I am honest with them when they ask why weren’t you here last week or how are you feeling today? We have to get rid of this stigma!

  • Jackie Shapiro Spector Linder
    8 years ago

    It seems to me that as with any disease, there are different degrees of how it presents itself. Nobody wants to be disabled by migraine disease but for those of us who are at this moment in time, it would seem appropriate for a fellow sufferer to advocate for the cause.

  • Amy Hampton
    8 years ago

    Great article. I wrote about the underlying sexist themes to this story on my blog recently (

  • Janet Geddis
    8 years ago

    Very well done! Thank you.

  • Mary Carol Kirchner Geddis
    8 years ago

    Nicely said!

  • Barbara Collins
    8 years ago

    Education is key here. At least it’s coming to the forefront. I love it when people say, “Oh, you have a headache”. It’s so much more but we keep on keeping on doing responsible jobs everyday.

  • Ryan Chisholm
    8 years ago

    Apparently its better for a President to have dabbled with Weed than to have a major headache. Amazing…

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