The Current

Not just a headache: Female migraine sufferers cope with pain and stigma

Migraine sufferers have taken to Twitter to change the conversation around debilitating migraines with the hashtag #notjustaheadache.
According to Statistics Canada, women are more than twice as likely to experience migraines as men. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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Hands rubbing temples. A severe, throbbing ache accompanied by sensitivity to light, loss of balance or vomiting.

The symptoms of migraine headaches are debilitating and they can last for days.

Studies consistently find that women are more affected by migraines than men. According to Statistics Canada, women in this country were more than twice as likely to report a migraine. 

Related: 'Silent epidemic': How a doctor is changing the way we treat pain

Migraine sufferers started a hashtag #notjustaheadache on Twitter to challenge the common misconception that migraines are caused by women's inability to cope with stress.

More than one in 10 people in the world will get a migraine at some point in their life, and yet migraines — and those who get them — are often misunderstood. 

Joanna Kempner, sociologist and author of Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health, first experienced migraines when she was just five-years-old. 

"One of the first things I remember is going to a pediatrician and that doctor telling my parents that I had a Type A personality," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"And that treatment from physicians went on for decades," she says.

It's all about this idea that people with migraine are women ... who cannot handle the stresses of everyday life.- Joanna Kempner, sociologist

Up until her early 20s, Kempner recalls her symptoms — throbbing pain, exhaustion, confusion — being constantly dismissed and ignored. She was once told her migraines were caused by the stress of not having a boyfriend.

"I really internalized much of those messages until I went to graduate school to study to become a sociologist," she says.

"And that's where I learned that illnesses and illness experiences are really social experiences and that what I had been experiencing all my life was stigma."

Neurologist Elizabeth Leroux believes the stigma surrounding migraines and the lack of support from doctors is because medical schools don't teach students about them to begin with. She says she learned nothing about migraines and how to treat them until her fourth year of her neurology residency.

"My first exposure was with … a family practitioner who was seeing migraine patients … but no resident would go there because people would say, 'Oh, you know, he's just a GP seeing some headache patients,'" Leroux recalls.

I decided I wanted to dedicate my career to people suffering from migraines.- Elizabeth Leroux, neurologist
Out of curiosity, Leroux decided to go. She listened to the story of a patient who, like Kempner, was desperate to be taken seriously. 
Sociologist Joanna Kempner says during the 1950s, women who suffered from migraines were considered hysterical housewives. (Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)

"To my young enthusiastic ears, that sounded like there was something to do for those people … and I decided I wanted to dedicate my career to people suffering from migraines." 

According to Kempner, for centuries the migraine was understood to be a disease of the elite. During the 1950s, men who experienced migraines were thought to be organized, good businessmen, while women who suffered from them were considered hysterical housewives.

"It's all about this idea that people with migraine are women who are hysterical and neurotic and who cannot handle the stresses of everyday life," she explains.

The patients Leroux treats are the exact opposite of the stereotypes she hears about female migraine sufferers from her neurology colleagues.

There's a huge grieving process there that's still continuing years later.- Anna Eidt, migraine advocate

"I heard so many comments of them being whiny and complaining … But then when I made it to the clinic and I hear those stories, I don't hear whining and complaining," she says.

"I hear a lot of courage, a lot of resilience, and women having careers, taking care of children or their family, going to work in a terrible state."

Migraine advocate Anna Eidt's chronic migraines transformed her life, causing her to leave her full-time job as a music educator in search of a work environment that she could have more control over.

"There's a huge grieving process there that's still continuing years later," she says.

While Eidt had a financial safety net through her work and her family to rely on, she says it was still difficult to cope with her debilitating symptoms.

"If I imagine people who don't have …  those supports, it's amazing how resilient and how strong they are to carry on doing what they do."

Listen to their conversation at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.