Migraine simulator – educational tool or more stigma?

The makers of Excedrin recently launched a virtual reality migraine simulator that mimics some symptoms of a migraine attack. Scott Yacovino, a representative from Excedrin, claims, “We’re simulating the symptoms of migraine – everything but the pain…” Unfortunately, this isn't quite accurate. The VR tool only replicates aura, floating spots, disorientation, tunnel vision, and bright lights.

Critics argue that without the experience of pain, nausea, vomiting, and communication impairment, non-sufferers cannot possibly understand what we go through. While I applaud Excedrin’s efforts to increase migraine awareness, it does fall short. The biggest problem is that most migraine patients do not ever experience an aura. Less than 25% of all migraine patients are diagnosed as having Migraine with Aura. The VR tool is not representative of the majority of migraine sufferers. Additionally, lights are not just “too bright” during a migraine attack. Any amount of light is physically painful. It is the same with sound and smell. No virtual reality simulator can replicate these experiences.

Excedrin has plans to release this simulator in May as a Google Cardboard app for anyone to use. I have reservations about this. Migraine attacks are so varied, even for an individual patient. None of us have the same symptoms. How do you replicate mood swings, food cravings, neck stiffness, or that insatiable craving for quiet, cold darkness? Migraine is a whole-body experience, not just a visual one.

Plus, the experience isn’t complete without long hours of isolation and the utter exhaustion that hangs on for hours after the pain has stopped. Unlike the volunteers in the Excedrin commercials, we can’t pull off a headset when we’ve had enough. Wishing to pop off our heads or trade ours in for healthy models are common, albeit morbid, jokes among migraineurs. To actually create an accurate “migraine experience” would never be approved because it would be deemed inhumane. Cindy McCain had it right. Migraine is torture.

This virtual reality app may have unintended consequences. It offers people a chance to experience a handful of visual symptoms that are actually quite rare. That may lead to an incorrect assumption that migraine isn’t “real” if it doesn’t look like the Excedrin app. We may discover a whole new set of stigmatizing myths, courtesy of Excedrin Migraine.

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