When was the last time you had a migraine, doc?

I woke up with a migraine today. This is pretty standard fare. I wake up in pain, take some medication (or not, depending on the day) and then figure out how I’m going to get to work. I am pretty used to this routine, since I have had migraines since I was five years old. The only thing that’s a little unusual is my actual job. I’m a sociologist and, for the last ten years, I’ve dedicated my time to researching migraines.

I developed my expertise through formal education and years of research in the field. But I already knew quite a bit about migraine by the mere fact that I live in a body in pain. Sociologists refer to this as embodied knowledge, which are the routines, tasks, habits, and information that our bodies learn without engaging in conscious thought. Most of us don’t have to reflect very long on what it is like to have a migraine all the time. Unfortunately, we have become experts through experience!

But what about the doctors who treat us? Of course, they learn about headache disorders through school, residency, and training. But at least one study suggests that headache specialists tend to have headache disorders at a far greater rate than the general population. The study, conducted by Randolph Evans, Richard Lipton and Stephen Silberstein, surveyed physicians who attended medical education courses on headaches in 2000. They found that migraine was much more prevalent among neurologists than among the general population. The difference was even more striking among those who identified as headache specialists. An astounding 59.3% of male headache specialists and 74.8% of female headache specialists had reportedly experienced a migraine in the previous year.

The neurologists in question said that their migraines didn’t have anything to do with their choosing of a profession, although one wonders if this is really true. Lots of us get into our professions because of a personal experience. More to the point, one wonders how their experience of migraine alters their treatment of headache patients. Might headache specialists bring their own form of embodied knowledge to the clinical encounter? I imagine that this kind of knowledge makes physicians “insiders” and helps them empathize with people who have migraines. Next time you go to the doctor, you can turn the interview around and ask them: when was the last time you had a migraine, doc?

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