Stephanie Watson, Executive Editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch recently wrote an article describing her experiences as the daughter of a migraineur, as well as the “unseen” pain chronic migraine sufferers experience due to social stigma. The following is a portion of Watson’s article…..

At least once a week throughout my childhood, a migraine would force my mother to retreat into her bedroom. She’d shut the blinds and burrow under the covers, overwhelmed by a pain so severe it turned the faintest sound into an agonizing roar and launched waves of nausea with the slightest movement. Though my family and I tried to be sympathetic, it was hard for us to fully comprehend my mother’s migraines or understand why she had to miss so many events because of them. When you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t begin to appreciate how severely disabling – and life disrupting – chronic migraine can be.

Migraines are often misunderstood, or dismissed as “just a headache.” Yet they have the capacity to disrupt a person’s life, relationships, and sense of well being. A study from Thomas Jefferson University released last week in PLos One, found that chronic migraine sufferers experience as much social stigma as people with epilepsy – a disease that produces far more obvious and dramatic symptoms. Some of the stigma is external – for example, getting treated differently by friends or colleagues. “Migraines are the unseen and undocumented pain that takes them away from work,” says R. Joshua Wootton, assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. “There’s no empirical test for migraine yet. That’s why people who report these problems with chronic pain are often not believed or are thought to be exaggerating in the work environment.” Yet much of the stigma found is external. Migraine sufferers often anticipate that their headaches will elicit negative reaction from friends and colleagues, or they’ll be less productive because they have to miss work so often. Such subjective experiences of stigma can be as damaging to health as overt discrimination or the loss of social relationships.

Migraines aren’t just a physical condition. Living with chronic pain, or the constant worry that a migraine can strike at any moment can take an emotional toll, too. When you can’t find effective ways to manage your migraines, “that frequently results in feeling helpless, hopeless, and as if everyone is against you,” Dr. Wootton says. If you’re having these feelings, it can be helpful to see a psychiatrist or psychologist – particularly at a center that specializes in pain management. “If you have considerable anxiety and/or depression, addressing those issues is important because they negatively affect migraine. They also make it much more difficult to cope with a condition like migraine,” says Dr. Egilius Spierings, associate clinical professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Migraine can be a frustrating condition to treat because there is no quick “cure.” My mother has tried just about everything, and some therapies have been more effective than others. Probably the safest, surest way to migraine relief is to work with your primary care physician, neurologist, or headache specialist. With some trial and error, you may find a treatment that finally relieves your pain.    Harvard Health Blog   1/29/13

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