6 Migraine Myths You Should Know
If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s getting migraine attacks. I’ve struggled with this disease since I was 19, and it has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. On average, I get a bad, three-day attack twice a month. It’s excruciating, but I like to look on the bright side and dwell on how migraine has prompted me to speak up and try to put awareness and goodness into the world. It’s hard, but I know how important it is for other migraineurs to feel like they are being heard and are not alone in this battle. My goal is to open that community up to others.
Part of that effort is educating myself so I can best educate others. Currently, I am working with an organization called Miles for Migraine, which hosts races and raises money for migraine research. By working with this organization, I’ve learned more about my disease in all the years I’ve had it, including how to use the correct terms and how to speak about migraine, so I can best represent it in my daily life. I also have a monthly column in PhillyVoice to humanize, raise awareness and make people feel less lonely in their struggles.
All these learning experience have made me passionate about sharing my journey and what I’ve picked up along the way. I am passionate about being a voice in this community and clearing up myths (oh boy, there are a lot!) about migraine and how it affects 38 million people in the United States.
Here’s what I’ve learned. Keep reading to discover six migraine myths you should know.
Myth 1: It’s “just” a headache.
Let me tell you something. I’d be thrilled with “just a headache.” A headache I can handle. Pop some aspirin, chug some water and get through the day like it’s no big deal. But migraine is much different because it’s a neurological disease.
There are many headache variations—sinus, cluster and tension, to name a few. The difference between these and migraine is that migraine is much more complex and has multiple symptoms. With migraine, you can experience any or all these symptoms: aura, nausea, severe pain on one side of the head, vision loss or blurry vision, trouble with screens, vomiting… you get the idea. It’s like all the worst sensations got together and said, “Let’s have a party in this person’s body!”
It’s important to recognize that migraine is not just a headache because it reduces the pain and struggle people with migraine have to endure their entire lives.
Myth 2: Migraine is caused by outside factors.
There’s a difference between “cause” and “trigger.” These words are often used interchangeably, but are completely different from each other. The cause of migraine isn’t completely understood, but researchers believe changes and imbalances in brain chemicals like serotonin contribute to migraine.
What we do know, however, is that genetics and gender play a big role—85 percent of people who have migraine are women. Some think this statistic coincides with estrogen levels in the body. Many women get migraine attacks right before or during their menstruation, as a drop in estrogen level affects chemicals in the brain associated with migraine.
Triggers, however, are easier to identify. For me, the biggest triggers (at least from what my migraine tracker tells me) are variable weather, stress, hormones and alcohol. Avoiding these things, however, won’t make me migraine free, as avoiding triggers only decreases the chances of a migraine attack.
Myth 3: Migraine can be relieved with over-the-counter medicine.
Recommend this to a migraineur and be prepared to have them laugh in your face—or punch you in the face; it really varies. A recommended dose of these wimpy pills won’t do the trick, and neither will going above the recommended dose. No matter how a OTC painkiller is marketed, it will not help us. Even if it has MIGRAINE plastered over the packaging, we look at these products and roll our eyes. That’s how ineffective they are to people with migraine.
The truth about migraine medications is that they aren’t that effective, unless you catch an approaching migraine before it gets bad. Even our own prescriptions will let us down over and over.
Myth 4: There is only one type of migraine sensation.
Migraine attacks come in many different forms. I like to call mine “migraine rollercoaster.” Some are worse than others; some take me to the brink of functionality, while most leave me holed up in a dark room, waiting for the torture to end. What ties them all together, though, is that when an attack hits, doing basic tasks takes up our energy and may even make our pain worse.
Most of the time, though, I try my hardest to push through, even when it seems impossible. In the past two months, I’ve voted with a migraine and attended speaking events with a migraine, even if it meant nearly vomiting onstage. Speaking at the WELL Summit was one of those how-did-I-do-that migraine experiences. The opportunity was one I had been looking forward to for months and, of course, a migraine hit. I should have been in bed, but my “show must go on” mentality forced me to get onstage and do my best—even if that meant potentially blowing chunks. I almost did, but driving the porcelain bus was not on my agenda.
What is important to note, though, is that every person’s experience is different. Just because I can force myself to speak at events or do my civic duty, does not mean other migraineurs should be expected to do the same. For many, pushing through is just not an option, and that should be respected.
Myth 5: People with migraine use it as an excuse to get out of things.
Oh, I wish that were the case. Instead, it’s the opposite. Making plans gives me anxiety because I want to go, and I just don’t know how my body will be the day of. I promise, I don’t use migraine to get out of making plans. I use migraine as a motivator to live: to spend time with loved ones, enjoy my day, go on an adventure, check things off my to-do list, etc.
On a good day, I want to do it all. So much of my life has been taken from this disease that when I’m healthy, all I want to do is not get out of things. Just this month, two-thirds of my life has had some sort of head pain, from manageable to excruciating. No matter how intense the pain is, it’s still there—and it’s exhausting. When I have my pain-free days, they are something to celebrate, with as many people as possible.
Myth 6: One remedy works for everyone with migraine.
Recently, I got attacked on Twitter for joking about all the pills I take for my conditions—including migraine. Joking is one of the coping mechanisms I use to deal with this disease. Instead, I was looked at as a bad person because I don’t go the natural route with my diseases. I work for a natural deodorant company for crying out loud—trust me, I’ve TRIED.
I used to sniff lavender in college because I heard it helps migraine attacks, but no longer do that because my brain associates the smell with migraine. (Great.) I’ve been using CBD to try to help the inflammation and manage stress and anxiety, and I haven’t noticed a change. I even tried getting a piercing with acupuncture benefits for migraine. It didn’t work.
So, when people come to me and shame me or push me to try remedies I know don’t work for my body, it’s incredibly frustrating. I hate that I take all these pills, numb my nerves and give myself shots in the ass to barely manage this disease. You think I like this?! I wish natural remedies worked for me, but I unfortunately must take a different route because everyone’s body is different, and my body needs remedy variation to survive this disease.
This is just the beginning of all that I have to say about migraine. I still have a lot of learning to do on my own, but my hope is what I already know can help spread awareness about migraine or help people with the disease feel like they are being heard.
Looking for remedies that might work for you? Check out our “I Tried…” series, where we try some of the latest wellness trends and report on their success.