Migraines: an inside view

It’s draining, and every throb, every “stab” hurts more, until you just want to beat your brains out, because you’re mad that your head would ever hurt you like this. The pain is not ignorable. It demands more and more of your attention, until it’s all you can think about, until you’re crippled in bed or next to the toilet, and it keeps spiraling, getting worse, worse, worse, and you just want to knock yourself out because you need to escape this maddening pain.

This is how a writer at The Experience Project describes what it’s like to have a migraine headache.

The news that Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota and aspiring presidential candidate, suffers from migraines has suddenly focused attention on a medical condition that’s all too often misunderstood.

Diana Lee, who has chronic migraines and blogs at Somebody Heal Me, welcomes the opportunity to educate – and implores the media and the public to get their facts straight.

There’s nothing about migraine disease that would make Bachmann unqualified to be president, Lee wrote in a guest column posted this week at Migraine.com:

It’s appalling enough for anyone to be speculating about how incapacitated she might be by this disease based entirely on rumors from former members of her staff. But what’s much worse to me is the incorrect characterization of her problem as “stress-related episodes.” What year is this? 2011? You could have fooled me into thinking it was 1911 when migraine was treated as a woman’s trouble and weakness suffered by those who couldn’t handle the ordinary stresses of everyday life.

Nor should the Congresswoman be judged for what one source called “heavy pill use,”
 Lee wrote. “Hey, guess what? Most chronic migraineurs take a lot of pills. Why the need to make it sound like she’s an addict in need of rehab because she takes medications for a chronic medical condition?”

Some facts from the Migraine Research Foundation: An estimated 36 million Americans – about 10 percent of the population – suffer from migraines. Although migraine disease affects people of all ages, including children, it’s most common among adults in the prime of life, between 25 and 55.

Few of us get through life without experiencing at least one severe headache. Migraine is much more than a had headache, however. It’s actually neurologic in origin and the pain is usually intense and debilitating. For some people it can become a chronic daily condition that seriously interferes with their quality of life.

On top of this, it’s often under-recognized, undiagnosed and undertreated. Although new classes of medication are now available to help manage and prevent migraines, research is lagging on what causes migraines and how to effectively treat them.

It all adds up to a picture that begs not to be seen as one-size-fits-all. MinnPost health blogger Susan Perry talked this week to Dr. Miles Belgrade, a neurologist at the Fairview Pain Management Center in Minneapolis, who explained that migraines can range from “hardly bothersome at all to completely devastating, where you have people who are basically nonfunctioning.” Nor does everyone respond well to treatment, Dr. Belgrade said.

The bottom line, according to Dr. Belgrade, is that while some people might well be incapacitated by chronic migraines, the condition is something that can be managed.

There’s a strong note of realism, though, in some of the online discussion by individuals who know firsthand what it’s like to live with migraine disease.

“If we are being honest, I really do think that most of us here know it can very well be incapacitating sometimes,” one person wrote in response to Lee’s guest column.

At the New York Times, someone else wrote: “I’m a chronic migraine patient – without my current treatment regimen, I’d have migraines just about every day or every other day. From experience, I know that while I *can* function during a migraine, I’m nowhere near the top of my game and I can’t always focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The political spin – Can She Run the Country If She Has Migraines? – seems to be the aspect of the story that has captured most people’s attention. But I’d say the real story is about the experience of ordinary people who have migraine disease and simply want to live their lives as well as they can.

Do you have severe headaches? Are they migraines? How well controlled are they? This online self-assessment by the Mayo Clinic can help you find out.

Photo: 13th-century caryatid clutching its head in apparent pain. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Geograph Project.


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