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10 Things People Without Migraine Don’t Get About Migraine

Under: Migraine, Migraine & Headache

Ever wonder why your friend with migraine always cancels at the last minute? Or why your coworker with migraine misses so much work? Migraine is an invisible illness – so migraines are hard to explain to someone who has never experienced them.

Not to mention that there are many misconceptions about migraine floating around. Some see people with migraine as oversensitive or flaky, assuming migraines are simply an excuse to skip work or cancel plans. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In this article, we’ll shed some light on some of the most common misconceptions people have about migraine. Hopefully, understanding these can help you better support any migraine sufferers in your life.

Without further ado, here are ten things migraineurs wish people knew about migraine:

1 – It’s not just a bad headache

Migraine is much more than a “bad headache.” It’s a complex neurological disorder/disease that’s debilitating for many. In fact, migraine is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide.1

While throbbing, one-sided head pain is the most classic symptom of migraine, it’s not the only one. Migraine can cause a wide range of symptoms that affect the entire body. More on this later.

2 – It’s super common

Migraine is much more common than you think, affecting roughly one out of seven people. According to the American Migraine Foundation, over one billion people live with migraine worldwide, including 39 million Americans.2,3

This makes migraine the third most prevalent disease worldwide.4 What makes this even more alarming is that 50% of people with migraine are undiagnosed. Meaning, that the actual number of migraine cases could be much higher.

3 – Head pain isn’t the only symptom

Yes, severe head pain is what migraine is best known for. But that’s just scratching the surface. Migraine can cause a host of other intense symptoms too, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Neck pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Vertigo
  • Food cravings
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Mood swings
  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Changes in vision
  • Frequent yawning
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion

Migraine symptoms vary from person to person, and even from attack to attack. This can make it difficult to understand what someone with migraine experiences – even if you have migraine yourself! In fact, some migraine attacks can occur with head pain.

4 – Migraines happen in phases

Migraine attacks happen in four stages: prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome. But not everyone with migraine experiences each stage with each attack.

About 65% of people with migraine experience the first stage, prodrome. During this stage, migraineurs get hints a migraine is on its way. This usually happens a day or two before the headache hits. Yawning, mood changes, food cravings, neck stiffness, and trouble concentrating are just a few signs of prodrome.

aura with migraine

After prodrome comes aura, which is marked by neurological symptoms. For some, this may come in the form of visual disturbances like flashing lights, zigzags, or blind spots.5 Others may experience tingling or numbness on one side of the face or have trouble speaking.5

Next comes the headache, which can start hours or minutes after aura passes. This involves throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head.

Once the headache passes, the postdrome stage follows. This phase is often called the “migraine hangover” because its symptoms are like what you’d feel after having one too many drinks. Extreme fatigue, body aches, and nausea are common in this phase.

So as you can see, the headache is just one piece of the puzzle.

Learn more: Migraine Phases Explained | Outsmart Your Migraines

5 – Migraine attacks can last for days

How long a migraine lasts varies from person to person and from attack to attack. Some migraine episodes are over in a few hours. Others persist for days and go through all four stages. Here’s what that could look like…

When prodrome occurs, it lasts between 24-48 hours, while aura is usually over within an hour.6 The headache phase typically lasts somewhere between 4 to 72 hours. Postdrome, aka the “migraine hangover,” lasts anywhere between a few hours to two days.7 Add it all up from start to finish, and a migraine attack can stretch for several days or even a week.

So, if you’ve ever felt skeptical when a co-worker with migraine missed work for a few days, know they’re not faking it. Try to give them some grace. Trust us, they’d much rather be at work than sleeping in a dark room waiting for the attack to pass.

6 – Smells and Foods can trigger attacks

People with migraine can come off as picky eaters. But it’s not because they’re following some fad diet. It’s because some of the most common migraine triggers are foods.

Potential trigger foods include:

  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Canned, cured, or processed meats
  • Dairy products
  • Artificial sweeteners like aspartame
  • Soy foods
  • Eggs
  • Food additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nuts, beans, and other foods containing tyramine
  • Wheat

Potential smell triggers include:

  • Perfume
  • Gas
  • Paint
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Cleaning products like bleach
  • Nail polish,
  • Asphalt.

As you can see, the list is long. So if you eat out with someone who has migraine, and they seem high maintenance, they’re not. They’re just trying to prevent a future attack.

7 – Hormones can trigger migraine

Menstruation isn’t particularly fun for any woman. But it’s especially tough for women with migraine. That’s because migraine is affected by hormonal changes – which explains why 85% of people with chronic migraine are women.8

Between 60-70% of women with migraine get attacks during their periods. This is due to the sudden drop in estrogen that menstruation brings.9 On the flip side, migraines tend to die down throughout pregnancy when hormone levels steadily rise.

8 – Migraine isn’t one-size-fits-all

Migraine affects everyone differently. Some people have chronic migraine, meaning they get 15 or more headache days per month. Others have episodic migraine and experience fewer headache days.

On top of that, each person’s migraine symptoms are unique. Some people with migraine get severe nausea and vomiting, while others don’t. About 25-30% of migraineurs experience aura: visual and sensory disturbances that signal a migraine is coming.10

To make matters even more complicated, there are also several types of migraine. For example, about 40% of migraineurs have vestibular migraine, which includes vestibular symptoms like vertigo and dizziness. Then there’s hemiplegic migraine, a form of migraine that can cause one-sided paralysis and resemble a stroke.

As you can see, no two cases of migraine look the same. If you and your next-door neighbor both had migraine, your symptoms could look quite different!

9 – Living with migraine can be lonely

People with migraine often feel misunderstood, even by their own families. At times, they’re told “it’s all in your head” – when their intense symptoms say otherwise.

Not to mention that migraineurs often have to cancel plans when an attack strikes and miss all the fun. Some pass on events altogether, feeling they’re too risky. They’d love to go to that concert but know those bright lights and loud noises are a recipe for a migraine.

And when a migraine does hit, hiding in a dark, quiet room can make for a sad, lonely time. Just as you can’t understand what someone with fibromyalgia or ADHD experiences unless you have it yourself, the same is true for migraine.

Connecting with a migraine support community can help those with migraine feel less alone. And having supportive loved ones can also help migraineurs feel seen and heard.

10 – Pain meds often don’t work

Many assume people with migraine can just pop a pain pill to end an attack. But it’s not that simple. Not all migraine medications work for everyone. Even if they did, taking too many pain medications can actually trigger headaches and migraine.11 These are known as medication overuse headaches or “rebound headaches.”

For this reason, many migraineurs choose to focus on prevention. This could involve lifestyle habits like exercise, stress management, and getting enough sleep. Avoiding trigger foods, eating a healthy diet, and getting the right nutritional support unique to migraine are also important tools for migraine prevention.

Remember, migraine is a complex disease. So managing it takes a multi-pronged approach.

Wrapping it up

Migraine is a condition that’s difficult to grasp unless you’ve experienced it yourself. But the better you understand migraine, the more you’ll be able to empathize with any migraine sufferers in your life.

If you know someone with migraine and aren’t sure how to best support them, just ask. Even a simple check-in can make a world of difference in the midst of an attack.