Women's Health Hot Line


Migraine: The Ignored "Woman's" Disease

Although both men and women get migraines, it is not an"equal opportunity" affliction. There are an estimated three female "migraineurs" for every man with the disease. Women migraine sufferers also suffer more severe, longer and more debilitating attacks.

Although migraines have been around forever - "migraine" comes from the Greek language - there are still many mysteries surrounding this disease.

When it comes to afflicting women, though, a major culprit is hormones. Up until puberty, boys and girls experience migraines in roughly equal proportion; it is after puberty that the shift towards women occurs. Many women also find their migraines coincide with fluctuations during their menstrual cycle; hence the apt term "menstrual migraine."

Not a serious disease?

"Migraine is not considered a serious 'woman's disease' and not accorded the same attention as other female ailments, such as breast cancer or heart disease," says award-winning medical journalist Charlotte Libov, whose latest book, Migraine: 50 Essential Things To Do, was published recently by Plume. "Yet, for the millions of women who suffer from it, migraine exacts a tremendous physical and emotional toll."

Not "just a headache"

Michael Coleman, executive director of M.A.G.N.U.M., an advocacy and educational organization devoted to migraine pain, agrees.

"This is a very painful, debilitating disease. It is not 'just a head-ache,' not a symptom and not an inability to deal with stress. It must be taken seriously," he says.

Studies support his viewpoint. Research shows that women suffer more intense migraines, leaving them less able to function at work and jeopardizing their careers. During an attack, mothers may find themselves unable to care for their children.

Surveys report women who get migraines say they feel they have no control over their lives, and may lack confidence and self-esteem. Migraine takes a toll on marriages as well; one survey reported 18 percent of the participants blamed migraines for their divorces.

Despite this, many sufferers don't seek treatment and a large number who do are misdiagnosed or unsuccessfully treated. This is undoubtedly largely due to the many myths that surround migraines. These myths include:

  • Migraine pain is an emotional problem. In fact, migraine pain is a biological disease. Although not fully understood, it is believed to involve the chemistry of the brain.

  • Women bring their migraines on themselves because they're "nervous" or "unable to handle stress." Fact is, although stress may contribute to migraines for some women (but certainly not all), it doesn't cause them. Actually, many women who get migraines handle stress as well as or better than women who don't get them.

  • A migraine is simply a severe headache. In fact, migraine and tension headaches have different causes, symptoms and treatment.

  • Migraine pain is caused by eating certain foods, like chocolate. The truth is that certain foods trigger migraines for some people, but certainly not for all. There are many other causes for migraines - even variations in barometric pressure during weather changes are found to cause migraine pain in many people.

  • If you get migraines, you need to learn to live with them. In fact, this may have been true once, but it isn't anymore. New drugs and techniques can help many sufferers successfully manage, and even halt, their migraines.

So although migraine pain was once seen as an insurmountable problem, this is no longer true. Although there is no "cure" yet for migraines, new types of drugs and ways to manage migraines have led to relief for millions.

Is it REALLY a migraine?

Do you get migraines? You may think you do - or don't. But some women who get tension headaches assume they are migraines, while others who suffer from migraines don't know it.

It's a confusing issue, mostly because of the impact of TV ads which, with their pounding hammers and other visualizations of head pain, have managed to blur the distinction between types of head pain until they seem indistinguishable.

But migraine pain is a distinct disease. Knowing this is increasingly important, especially because of the development of a new class of prescription drugs, the most widely-known being Imitrex, which is effective only with migraines.

Here are some descriptions of common head pain to help you determine whether you get migraines.

Almost everyone has experienced a tension headache at one time or another, by far the most common type of head pain. This pain is often described as a tight band encircling the head. These headaches vary from mild to moderate and can last for hours, days or even longer.

Migraines generally fall into two categories: those which occur with an aura, and those which occur without one. Known also as common migraine, migraine without aura manifests itself as a throbbing, severe headache which may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, as well as extreme sensitivity to light, sound or motion.

A migraine with aura has similar symptoms; the "aura" is the name given to a set of neurological symptoms that precede the head pain. This usually occurs as visual symptoms such as flashing lights or patterns. Some people become partially blind or experience hearing or small hallucinations, or possibly numbness or tingling of the arms or legs.

More and more remedies are being developed for migraines. There are new effective drugs, as well as non-drug therapies such as biofeedback and the herbal remedy feverfew. Again, though, the key is to know what type of headache you suffer from, and to see your doctor to get adequate help to manage it.

Migraine help


 migrane book cover

Migraine: 50 Essential Things to Do
by Charlotte Libov

ISBN 0-452-27726-4
Call 1-800-253-6476 or www.amazon.com

Organizations providing information and help to migraine sufferers include: