Migraine Ain’t Just a Headache & it Ain’t Just Pain

People with chronic illness are known to declare that they are in some way better because of that illness. That it has taught them to value every moment, cherish the good times, accept life’s curve balls with grace, become braver and stronger. (In fact, the latest Headache Disorders and Migraine Blog Carnival is all about these unexpected blessings.) I absolutely agree that chronic migraine has changed me for the better, but writing about it is difficult without descending into cliches or trivializing the monumental effort of day-to-day life.

How Chronic Pain Has Made Me Happier, a recent Lifehacker post, has some great points about the enriching lessons of chronic pain. Unfortunately, they are couched in bumbling terms that minimize the struggle and oversimplifies the relationship between psychological and physical health. It frames illness as opportunity — a characterization that always raises my hackles — and leans toward the “just think positively” self-help meme. (Keeping these points in mind, it is still absolutely worth a read.)

All these complaints are minor in comparison to the glaring reason why this article does not apply to migraine: migraine is not a pain disorder, nor is chronic migraine a chronic pain disorder. Migraine is a complex neurological condition that affects every system in the body. Migraine ain’t just a headache and it ain’t just pain.

Everything the writer talks about, all that he’s able to overcome, while not simple by any means, only represents one piece of migraine. Pain may be the most obvious, debilitating feature of migraine for most of us, but the nausea, fatigue, dizziness, mental fogginess, mood swings, and heightened sensory awareness can be just as debilitating. And that’s only a smattering of the many under-recognized symptoms of migraine.

Treating migraine as either a headache or a pain disorder perpetuates the myths that surround this illness. It also trivializes how debilitating migraine attacks are, whether acute or chronic. According to the World Health Organization, severe, continuous migraine is as disabling as quadriplegia.

Please think carefully about how you describe migraine: whether you call it a headache or head pain, a pain condition or a neurological disorder, a disease or not. These may seem like insignificant differences, but research abounds that the words we use shape the reality we see. And the reality that non-migraineurs believe.