“People who don’t experience them will think of them as just a headache.”
If you’re at all familiar with migraines, you can probably name some of the symptoms. You know they’re more than just a headache: They can cause vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, serious fatigue, and more. They can disrupt your ability to do your job, or make you afraid to travel.
Another effect of migraines is the toll they can have on relationships. Of course, loved ones want to be supportive, but migraines can unintentionally become a source of tension. After all, migraines are still a deeply misunderstood condition.
“A lot of times people who don’t experience them will think of them as maybe just a headache,” says Sylvia Mohen, MD, neurologist in New York City. “They don’t understand the degree of physical disability that people with migraine sometimes undergo during their migraines.”
The Social Frustrations of Migraine
One of the most challenging aspects of migraines is that they are unpredictable. As a result, many people with migraines find themselves having to cancel plans or leave events early to rest in a dark or quiet room. If someone’s migraines become frequent, they may even become afraid to commit to plans in the first place.
“This can put a lot of stress on relationships, particularly if you have a spouse who doesn’t understand [why] you need to sit in a dark room for a few hours or even for a full day when you undergo your migraines,” says Dr. Mohen. “If you have little kids who really want you to be present and active with them, they may not understand that your migraines are really disabling and they put you out of commission for the day.”
It can be especially hard if a loved one questions the legitimacy of what you are experiencing. People who don’t experience migraines may worry that you’re lying or making excuses, which can obviously be detrimental to the relationship.
Nurturing Healthy Relationships
“I think it’s very important to speak to the people in your lives about your migraines, and to give them a sense of just how disabling they are for you,” says Dr. Mohen. “You can try to describe the pain in ways that maybe they can relate to or the associated nausea or the fatigue.” (Check out how these people describe their own migraines.)
For people you live with, it may also help to discuss your triggers and ways you can reduce them in the household. You might mention how you need a quiet home during an attack, or how it would help to keep certain foods out of the home. This can help reduce conflict by potentially preventing attacks, but also making sure you’re on the same page when attacks occur.
You may also need to consider your work relationships. It may help to have your coworkers’ support to reduce tension or resentment. For example, if you need to work from home due to an attack, or you need to leave work abruptly, your coworkers may be more accommodating if they understand what you’re experiencing. This may help prevent conflict at work and keep your work relationships strong.
That said, you have no obligation to disclose personal health information to them. Learn more about creating an action plan for migraines at work here.
Getting Help with Your Relationships
It might go without saying, but it is obviously best to find friends and partners who are supportive and do not hold your migraines against you. Still, even the most empathetic people can misunderstand migraines from time to time, if they do not experience them themselves.
Additionally, if you are nervous about how frequent or severe migraines are affecting your relationships with friends or loved ones, this may signal that your migraine treatment regimen isn’t working. Switching up your treatment might result in better control of your migraines, which would take some pressure off your relationships.
“It might be another good time to speak to your doctor about other options you can pursue to get your migraines under better control,” says Dr. Mohen.
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There's a lot of stigma around migraines still
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in the general population.
A lot of times,
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people who don't experience them will think of them as maybe
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just a headache,
and they don't understand the degree
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of physical disability that people with migraine
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during their migraines.
This can put a lot of stress
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particularly if you have a spouse who doesn't understand
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that you need to sit in a dark room for a few hours
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or even for a full day when you undergo your migraines.
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If you have little kids who really want you to be present
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and active with them, they may not understand
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that your migraines are really disabling
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and may put you out of commission for the day.
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(somber atmospheric music)
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In my experience of managing patients with migraines,
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invariably, I always want to make sure
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I'm also meeting their family members and their loved ones
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because I do know that this is not a singular experience.
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This is really, at the minimal,
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is a family, if not a communal experience,
that's being shared,
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and unfortunately, people are being impacted negatively,
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so I think understanding that moment
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and understanding how much they've given up,
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and that giving up could be giving up positions at work
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because they just feel like the stress of taking on the next level
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of responsibility will potentially cause more migraine episodes,
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or it could be a decision between a husband and wife
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that having another child,
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I don't know if I can have another child
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because just managing it,
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and if I'm not able to take care of one child,
how am I gonna
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take care of a second or a third child?
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These sort of a have reverberations that go way beyond
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what we see in the day-to-day management.
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I think it's very important to speak to the people
in your lives
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about your migraines,
and to give them a sense
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of just how disabling they are for you.
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It's a very subjective experience
and it's sometimes hard
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for other people to understand just how bad they can be.
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You can try to describe the pain in ways that maybe
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they can relate to,
or the associated nausea or the fatigue.
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If your migraines are controlling your life
and negatively affecting
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your relationship, it really is time to touch base
with a neurologist.
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Migraines can also be associated with
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depression and anxiety.
It's been very well delineated
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in the literature that you can have
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and anxiety just related to having migraines at baseline,
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and sometimes the treatments can actually address
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several things at once.
- Acute treatment of migraine in adults. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on August 4, 2020)
- Buse DC, Fanning KM, Reed ML, Murray S, Dumas PK, Adams AM, Lipton RB. Life with migraine: effects on relationships, career, and finances from the chronic migraine epidemiology and outcomes (CaMEO) study. Headache. 2019 Sep;59(8):1286-99.
- How to best support someone with migraine. American Migraine Foundation, 2020. (Accessed on August 4, 2020)
- Migraine and your marriage. American Migraine Foundation, 2018. (Accessed on August 4, 2020)
- Preventive treatment of migraine in adults. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on August 4, 2020)