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Bursting the stereotype of migraine headaches

By Kathy Hubbard

If you’re a white woman in your child-bearing years, you’re the stereotypical migraine sufferer. But is that an accurate description? Dr. Rashmi Halker Singh is a headache specialist at Mayo Clinic and a member of the American Migraine Foundation’s editorial board. She begs to differ since she’s also a migraine sufferer.

Dr. Halker Singh objects to the media using stereotypical images. These images often show the woman with her eyes closed and hands-on both temples. Researchers say this is inaccurate because the pain isn’t always bilateral. More often, it occurs on only one side of the head, and pain can come from around the shoulders and neck.

“Migraine can affect all people,” Dr. Halker Singh said. “It doesn’t really matter what your background is. If we represent only one demographic in imagery, that excludes a lot of people from the conversation, and that’s a problem.”

She said that people who suspect they have migraines may look it up online and only see people that look nothing like themselves in terms of gender, age, and race. “You might be less inclined to think that you have migraine and not seek the help you need,” she explained.

The AMF estimates that 39 million Americans live with migraine. “However, many people do not get an accurate diagnosis or the treatment they need, so the actual number is probably higher.”

Just for fun, I looked at several sites with images of migraine sufferers and have to admit it made me smile when they were all young, thin, white women holding their temples with both hands or squeezing the tops of their noses with their eyes scrunched shut.

But to be honest, women proportionately get more migraines than men, from around 21 percent of women to roughly 10 percent of men. In addition, about 10 percent of children will experience the pain and disability of migraine. But American Indians have a higher incidence than Caucasians, with Asians coming in at the bottom.

The American Headache Society said that “when analyzed by age, the highest prevalence was found between 18 and 44. 17.9 percent of this demographic reported migraines or severe headaches within the three months of being surveyed. This number dramatically decreases with age, with only 5.1 percent of people over 75 reporting either migraine or severe headache.”

Common migraine symptoms are nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, smells, and sounds. AMF says there are other less common signs often overlooked that people should know about.

For starters, an early migraine sign might be neck pain. “While neck pain was previously thought to be a migraine trigger, recent studies show it is a symptom of migraine, not a cause,” AMF said.

Some people will experience body chills before the onset of the migraine. AMF said that “changes in the brain and blood vessels that occur during a migraine attack may cause chills, shivering or sweating. The areas of the brain often associated with migraine also control body temperature and muscle movement.”

You’ve probably heard of migraine auras. They typically affect one’s vision. In addition, AMF talked about phantom smell auras. Although rare, the migraine-related smells are usually unpleasant and have a burning or smoke scent.

“Many people experience migraine and confusion at the same time. This can make a person feel like it’s hard to concentrate and think clearly – symptoms commonly known as brain fog,” AMF explained.

And then there’s insomnia. AMF said that it’s true that sleep and migraine affect one another. “Insomnia, including difficulty falling or staying asleep, waking up too early and not feeling refreshed after sleep, can be a migraine symptom.”

This one surprised me. They said that 90 percent of self-diagnosed sinus headaches were actually migraines. “Forty-five percent of people with migraine have at least one symptom of congestion or watery eyes.” They also said that sinus headaches are rare.

Other symptoms that may indicate migraine are dizziness, vertigo, and mood changes. And finally, they mentioned allodynia. That’s a subject for another day, but simply it’s feeling pain from things that typically don’t hurt, and anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of migraine suffers experience it.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com. This article was written for and published in the Bonner County Daily Bee on June 22, 2022.

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