We all have that crazy uncle, the well meaning aunt or the embarrassing friend who despite having good intentions, just doesn’t get it.
The worst situations arise from people you don’t know as well. Often it will be in a group situation where you don’t feel as comfortable going into detail about your ongoing personal health problems.
Usually migraineurs are too polite to say anything directly to the offending individual. But it’s important that they are made aware. It’s not an easy task, but often the individual may not have realised they are causing offence.
Below is the list of the most common- often inadvertent- insults from those closest to us:
1) "But you don’t look sick"
Migraineurs spend an enormous amount of energy trying to fit in and look as normal as possible. In one sense this it may seem like a compliment but usually it comes across as a condescending lack of empathy and judgment of the chronically ill. As if the disease isn’t real unless you can see it. Chronic migraineurs endure more stigma than epilepsy for this reason. (1)
2) "Just take aspirin"
Many chronic migraineurs are taking preventative medications every day to help prevent attacks. Acute attacks can involve dizziness, vertigo, blinding lights, severe stabbing pain, nausea vomiting, hypersensitivity to light, sound and touch amongst other things.
It isn’t anything like a regular headache. Some people experience symptoms resembling a stroke after losing function in one side of their body. Migraines can last for days and often-standard painkillers are ineffective.
3) "I get headaches and I don’t need time off work"
A migraine attack can render someone hugging the toilet bowl between bouts of nausea and vomiting, curled over in bed, requiring ice packs on the head to numb some of the pain. Often migraineurs require a dark, quiet room to see off the worst of the attack.
4) "It’s just a headache"
Many women have said their migraines are more painful than childbirth. Migraines are a neurological disease that affects the nervous system and sensitises the brainstem which affects the entire body.
5) "At least you’re not dying"
Unfortunately migraines do take lives each year through rare migrainous strokes, suicide and death by accidental overdose, depression, medical mistakes, side effects and related accidents. (2)
Chronic migraineurs are the group most at risk of these potentially fatal health issues and professional help should be sought if migraines impact the individual for 15 days or more per month.
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6) “You’re just stressed out”
Migraines are a genetic and neurologic disease which results in a sensitized brainstem that overreacts to otherwise normal stimuli. Consequently, many of us have healthy levels of stress in our lives and still experience migraines.
7) “I wish I could hang out at home all the time like you”
Another insensitive comment. Perhaps you’d like a day or week or more off work. Sure, who wouldn’t. But would you trade your permanent health for it? Would you give up your freedom, self esteem, confidence and happiness for it?
Being chronically ill is lonely, debilitating and dangerously depressing. You on the other hand can reach your full potential to be a productive, active member of society.
8) "Is it that time of the month?"
Whilst menstruation is a common trigger for woman it does not excuse this kind of statement. This is simply poor manners and inappropriate.
Migraines are not limited to females. As a 20 year migraineur and male author of this page, let me re-assure you men get migraines too. There are millions of male migraineurs around the world. And being a guy, I can tell, when you get hit with a migraine unprepared without your treatment on hand the pain is out of this world.
9) "Have you tried going sugar free?"
Whilst changing your diet can eliminate trigger foods and help prevent attacks, there is no cure for migraine, dietary or otherwise.
10) "It can’t hurt that bad"
The World Health Organisation has ranked migraine in the top 20 most disabling diseases worldwide. They also rate a severe migraine attack as comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis.
11) "You really need to do something about those headaches"
I wouldn’t wish migraines on my worst enemy, so it’s particularly insulting when you assume an that we aren’t making an effort to get better. Most migraineurs feel like they have tried everything and spent a fortune trying to get better. From treatments, vitamins, diets, holistic medicine, physical therapy, acupuncture and so on.
12) "Get a hobby – it will take your mind off the pain"
If you broke your leg, would doing puzzles or crosswords take your mind off the pain? I didn’t think so.
Migraine is a primary disease meaning it’s not caused by anything else. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin are thought to be involved in the migraine genesis. As you might appreciate, it is not unreasonable for those with a chronic disease to become depressed as a result of their experience. It’s therefore common for clinical depression to occur in migraine patients.
It takes an incredible strength to withstand the sense of helpless and lack of empathy from the outside world with migraine.
13) "Just go for a walk, that always gets rid of my headaches"
Exercise is can be helpful for migraineurs if they are not having an attack. For chronic migraineurs often there is little free time between attacks, which leaves little opportunity for exercise. Additionally exercise or overheating can be a trigger for migraineurs. Walking outside in bright sunlight with a migraine does not help.
14) "Have you prayed about it?"
This can be insensitive and hurtful regardless of an individuals’ religious beliefs. There is no single treatment, behaviour or action that acts as a cure-all for migraine.
How strong is your friendship?
If you’re a friend or family member and you’ve read this far then high fives & hugs! You’re awesome and now you’re officially a friend of mine. Migraineurs have to go through a world of a pain and now that you have a glimpse of our world we are brought closer together.
If you’re read this list a feel guilty that you’ve said some or all (*gasp*) of things don’t worry. The fact that you made it here shows us that you are a true friend and that we are lucky to have you! All is forgiven : )
In fact, now it’s our turn. On behalf of the migraineur who sent you here I’d like to say thank you for putting up with me. I know I’m far from perfect. Over the years I’ve taken meds which have made me gain weight, lose weight, be happy, be cranky, and you’ve been there unwavering all through the up’s and down’s. I realise that and I do really appreciate it.
So thank you. I don’t say it nearly enough. But you are my world and I love you.
What other comments have you heard or inadvertently said? No judgment here, we’ve all been guilty at one stage. Please share them in the comments below- they could be from bosses, colleagues, partners, children, parents or even doctors. I’d love to hear from you.
Now go share this with some other crazy aunt, uncle or friends that may or may not be innocent ;)
Discover The 5 Biggest Mistakes
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1. William B. Young, Jung E. Park, Iris X. Tian, Joanna Kempner. The Stigma of Migraine. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e54074 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054074
2. Velentgas, P., Cole, J. A., Mo, J., Sikes, C. R. and Walker, A. M. (2004), Severe Vascular Events in Migraine Patients. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 44: 642–651. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2004.04122.x