Stigmatizing Migraine Myths You Can Safely Ignore

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

Loading the player...

Migraines are one of the most misunderstood conditions. Often times, they’re dismissed as just a bad headache (or worse, an excuse to stay at home and skip an event). One reason is that migraines are an “invisible” condition. To outsiders, people who suffer from migraines don’t necessarily look sick, so sympathy tends to be lost.

Another reason is that there are many rumors floating around about what migraines actually are—and what they’re not.

We asked neurologist Mark Green, MD, from Mount Sinai Hospital to shed some light on common migraine myths, and debunk them once and for all.

MYTH: Migraines are all in your head.

“Migraines are very real—it’s biochemical,” says Dr. Green. Migraines are caused by a complicated interaction between the brain and blood vessels in the face and head. Learn more about how doctors define migraines here.

“It only adds to a person’s suffering to imply they they should just be controlling it themselves and it’s not real,” says Dr. Green.

MYTH: A migraine is a just a bad headache.

Everyone gets headaches—but migraines are not just a bad headache. A headache is just one symptom of migraines.

In addition to the infamous headache, migraines are a complex condition that can make a person feel a variety of symptoms. “You may get light sensitivity, nausea, [and] vomiting—there’s a lot of symptoms of migraine that go well beyond a headache,” says Dr. Green.

MYTH: All migraines have auras.

There are two types of migraines: Migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Some people think auras are what distinguish a migraine from a regular headache, but that’s not true. “Only 20 percent of people with migraine have auras,” ays Dr. Green.

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, or 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.

MYTH: You have to deprive yourself of foods that you love to avoid triggering a migraine.

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

“We’re not recommending you stop everything that you enjoy,” says Dr. Green. “If you like something like aged cheese, which has tyramine, you can probably have it, except perhaps a times where other triggers are applicable, for example, like around the time of your period.”

MYTH: 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 OTC medications every time, but don’t. “In general the rule is, we don’t like people to take an acute medication more than twice a week,” says Dr. Green.

“We do want people to treat early for an individual attack, but if they treat early and often, they can turn the episodic problem into a chronic headache and make the whole thing worse,” says Dr. Green.  

Talk to your doctor if you suffer from frequent migraines—there are other migraine treatments that can help.

MYTH: 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. Learn more about home remedies to help treat migraines.

“We’ve come to recognize how debilitating migraines are. An effective treatment may reduce that visibility,” says Dr. Green. “It’s an exciting time we’re in now, where new drugs are in development and new treatments are in development, we want people to avail themselves to these.”