Stigmatizing Migraine Myths You Can Safely Ignore

For starters, a migraine is so much more than a bad headache.

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Migraines are one of the most misunderstood conditions. One reason is that migraines are an “invisible” condition. To outsiders, people who suffer from migraines don’t necessarily look sick. This makes them harder for others to understand, and many migraine myths have developed as a result.

What are the most common migraine myths?

It's a myth that migraines just "aren't real."

There are actual changes that happen in the brain during migraine attacks. There seems to be a complicated interaction between the brain and blood vessels in the face and head. Learn more about how doctors define migraines here.

The pain of migraines is bad enough. It only adds to a person’s suffering to imply that they are making up or exaggerating the pain, or that they should be able to control it themselves.

It's a myth that migraines are just bad headaches.

Everyone gets headaches from time to time — but migraines are not just a bad headache. This migraine myth creates stigma because people may have a hard time understanding why someone is constantly canceling plans or missing work for "just a headache."

A headache is just one symptom of migraines. The pain may be intense, and the person might also have nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. For many, the best treatment is to take their medication and rest in a cool, dark, quiet room.

It's a myth that an aura comes before all migraines.

There are two types of migraines: Migraine with aura and migraine without aura. An aura is a symptom that happens before or during a migraine headache, and often lasts 15 to 30 minutes. Each person's aura is different, but in most cases the aura affects the vision.

People experiencing an aura might:

  • See flashing lights, bright spots, or zig-zag lines
  • Temporarily lose part of their vision
  • Have numbness and tingling of the lips, lower face, or fingers of one hand
  • Hear sounds or have ringing in their ears

Some people think auras are what distinguish a migraine from other types of headaches, but that’s not true. In fact, just over 20 percent of people with migraines actually experience auras, according to the American Migraine Foundation. That means the other 80 percent or so do not have auras before their migraines.

It's a myth that you have to deprive yourself of all trigger foods.

While it’s true that certain foods and ingredients can provoke migraines for about 50 percent of migraine sufferers, avoiding triggers completely may be unhealthy, since the list of potential migraine trigger foods is extensive. This list includes:

  • Aspartame (artificial sweetener)
  • Caffeine or caffeine withdrawal
  • Wine and other types of alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Some fruits and nuts
  • Fermented or pickled goods
  • Yeast
  • Cured or processed meats
  • Aged cheeses

You may be able to tolerate small or moderate amounts of trigger foods without triggering a migraine. Plus, there will be times when you are more or less sensitive to food triggers. For example, you may be able to have wine sometimes, but not around the time of your period or when you're stressed.

It's a myth that the more medication you take, the better you'll feel.

First off, medication should always be taken as prescribed or indicated. If you have frequent migraines, it may be tempting to take over-the-counter pain relievers every time, but don’t.

In general, the rule is to avoid taking an acute medication more than twice a week. Taking an acute treatment option more than your doctor recommends can lead to medication overuse headache.

Talk to your doctor if you suffer from frequent migraines. If you find yourself needing medication more often than recommended, it might be a sign that you need a more aggressive treatment option. Luckily, there are other migraine treatments that can help.

It's a myth that there's nothing you can do about migraines.

While migraines can’t be cured, there are many medical and lifestyle treatment options to soothe migraine symptoms and prevent future attacks. Migraines can be very debilitating and have a serious effect on your quality of life. Finding a treatment plan with your doctor can help you regain control of your life.