Despite so many people around the world suffering from this debilitating and disabling disease (over 30 million in the US alone), migraine is still shrouded in myth and mystery. Some of the myths are purely ignorance based but which are relatively harmless. Others are potentially dangerous.
Even among migraineurs there is misunderstanding and confusion. Add to that the lack of in-depth knowledge in the general medical field, and it’s easy to see how long-held, but erroneous, beliefs about the disease not only persist, but thrive.
Here are some common untruths and myths you’ll hear:
Stress and Depression Cause Migraine
This is linked to the widespread belief that it’s migraine sufferers’ fault; that they have somehow caused their condition. In fact, neither stress nor depression are causes of migraine, nor is any other psychological disorder.
Migraine is a neurological disease, with physiological causes rather than psychological ones. Diverse triggers cause vasodilation in blood vessels in the brain, which in turn stimulates nerve endings to release neurotransmitters. Migraine is as much a biologically based disorder as any other medical condition including angina, epilepsy, hypertension or asthma.
Even in the medical profession, migraine is often misdiagnosed as a psychological disorder and this can lead to the prescription of strong medication that is not needed and is ineffective. The myth that depression can lead to migraine is particularly unfortunate for sufferers since medication for depression alone will not help in the control of migraine symptoms. The myth is perpetuated because there are similarities in the brain patterns between those people who suffer from migraine and those who suffer from depression, and while sufferers may become depressed as they battle with the condition, it is not the depression that causes the migraine.
Migraine Is a Bad Headache
This myth is particularly upsetting for migraine sufferers. It diminishes the level of disability they feel, the pain they suffer and the fear of future attacks that often dogs migraine sufferers. In truth, migraine is a neurological disease, with head pain being one of the symptoms.
There are other symptoms too, which distinguish migraine from a standard headache. These include heightened sensitivity in all the senses, many of which are uncomfortable and can be frightening and painful in their own right. They include nausea and vomiting, disturbances in vision such as bright, flashing or zigzagging lights. Sufferers can become sensitive to sound and light to the extent that they need to retreat from ordinary life in order to cope, and they can experience numbness in limbs and difficulty speaking along with a sense of confusion.
Clearly, migraine is more than a bad headache yet this myth persists and adds to the burden of migraine sufferers.
Any Doctor Can Diagnose and Treat Migraine
Migraineurs often have an uphill battle just to get an accurate diagnosis. It’s thought that around 60 percent of women and 70 percent of men who are migraineurs have never been diagnosed. Neurologists agree that migraine is seriously misunderstood and often misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, when the medical profession dismisses the condition or inaccurately recognizes and misunderstands the causes, it strengthens the belief that it is caused by neurotic or irrational behavior on the part of the sufferer. It can lead to sufferers being turned away from emergency rooms when they need urgent treatment or pain control, and to medical insurers developing discriminatory policies.
The good news is that migraine is now recognized as having a genetic base, and studies point to a way of conducting DNA tests that will lead to more accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Migraine is Not Life-Threatening
This belief is widely held but, in fact, migraine can lead to many other physical conditions that are life threatening, including strokes and aneurysms. The New England Journal of Medicine agrees that migraine can lead to ischemic stroke, and it’s thought that around 25 percent of the strokes experienced by people under the age of 45 are associated with migraine. Migraineurs are over twice at risk of stroke than those who do not have migraine.
There is also a relationship between migraine and epilepsy, with around 15 percent of people with epilepsy also suffering from migraine. Both migraine and epilepsy are associated with alterations of neurological function.
In addition to all the above, migraineurs are often dismissed as alcoholics or drug abusers. They may need to wear dark glasses indoors when they’re photosensitive; they might need more frequent trips to the bathroom when they’re nauseous or need to vomit; their speech may occasionally be slurred, and they may arrive late for work or leave early. These patterns of behavior often lead to discrimination and resentment from employers and coworkers.
These dangerous myths surrounding migraine add an immense burden to a migraine sufferers’ lot as they battle to cope with a debilitating condition that society disregards or misunderstands.