Twelve Myths About Migraine in Women

Why do migraine headaches occur more frequently in women than in men?

Did you know that women are more likely to experience headaches than men? While tension-type headaches affect slightly more women than men, migraine is much more likely to affect women, and afflicts three times as many women as men. Why would this be?

The reason is thought to be a combination of genetics and hormones. The World Health Organization has found that migraine is a leading cause of disability in women throughout the world. Despite all we now know about migraines, misinformation persists.

Here are some common myths about why women have migraines.

Twelve Migraine Myths

Because the general public is largely misinformed about this illness, numerous misconceptions about migraine have entered the popular lore. What follows are twelve myths about women and migraine. Once you're armed with the facts, you can set the record straight when confronted with such troublesome fallacies.

Myth 1 - Women get more migraines than men do because women are more emotional and easier to upset.

FactWomen experience more migraines than men do as a result of hormonal differences and genetics and their effect on brain biochemicals. The majority of women - however "emotional' they may be - do not get migraines.

Myth 2 - Many women bring on migraines to avoid something like sex or work.

Fact:  Migraine is a disorder of altered physiology. While there may be a subset of women (and men) with subconsciously triggered psychosomatic migraines, the vast majority of migraineurs have no psychological reason for their headaches.

Myth 3 - Women who suffer from many migraines probably need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist. They must have some inner conflicts that cause those headaches.

Fact:  Some women with migraines also suffer form emotional problems, and addressing inner conflicts in therapy can reduce migraine frequency and severity. (However, it will not "cure" the underlying migraine tendency in the brain.) Some experts believe that the neurochemical changes that cause migraine can also cause mental disorders, such as depression. If a woman who experiences migraines also has an emotional problem, she may need to consult with a mental-health professional. But most women who suffer form migraines don't need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist; they just need help in averting migraine attacks and managing their pain.

Myth 4 - Women get migraines because they eat bad things, like chocolate.

Fact:  Various foods do act as a trigger in about 25% of all migraine sufferers, which means that they don't precipitate a headache in the majority of migraineurs. Of that 25%, not all women react adversely to chocolate. Some women anecdotally report that chocolate actually makes them feel better. Why? Because chocolate contains a caffeine-like substance, which can help alleviate pain in some individuals. Other foods that often trigger migraines are red wine, aged cheese, and dishes prepared with MSG. (More about food triggers later in this chapter.)

Myth 5 - If a medication works for one woman's migraines, then it should work for most other women, too.

Fact:  Women are not all made from the same mold. A medication or treatment that works for one woman may not work for the next one. There's a tremendous amount of individual variation in responsiveness to given medications.

Myth 6 - Women who get migraines are just plain depressed.

Fact:  A disproportionately high number of women with migraine are clinically depressed; however, treating their depression does not cure their migraine. Does the recurring pain of migraine make women feel depressed because migraine is inherently depressing? Or is there another cause of both depression and migraine? Research actively continues to work toward determining the underlying factors of this relationship. It is known that depression places one at increased risk of developing migraines and migraine increases the risk of becoming depressed. But it's important to realize that depression is highly treatable.

Myth 7 - Women who get migraines usually have PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).

Fact:  The approach of a woman's period triggers migraine in many women. But these women do not necessarily also get PMS. For other women, migraines have nothing to do with their menstrual cycle. Some women who do have PMS do not get migraines.

Myth 8 - People who get migraines take a lot of time off from work.

Fact:  People with migraines don't appear to take any more time off from work than people with other chronic ailments. In fact, some people with migraines struggle to stay on the job and actually take less time off than people with other disorders.

Myth 9 - Women who get "weekend headaches" are avoiding their spouses and families.

Fact:  Unfortunately for migraineurs, many women experience migraines on weekends. this could be because of a change from high levels of stress to lower stress levels. It may also be due to changes in daily habits, such as sleeping patterns and decreased caffeine intake. But few (if any) women get migraines because they want to avoid their families.

Myth 10 - Only white women get migraines.

Fact:  Women of all races suffer form migraines, though the prevalence is higher among Caucasian women. One study showed a 20.4% rate of migraine among Caucasian women, a 16.2% prevalence among African-American women, and a 9.2% prevalence among Asian-American women.

Myth 11 - If a person tried hard enough, she could shake her headache problem.

Fact:  It is simply not possible to "will away" your tendency to migraine. Many migraineurs try hard to find their migraine triggers and to control the illness. Although many women never seek medical treatment, they do take over-the-counter medication in an attempt to lessen these debilitating headaches. Much can be done to minimize the frequency and severity of migraines. Recent research has yielded new medications and new ideas about migraine. Doctors have made amazing strides in helping people, but we haven't yet learned to cure people of migraines forever.

Myth 12 - Women who get migraines are extremely intelligent, high-achieving, nervous people who have a "migraine personality".

Fact:  Though migraine sufferers like the "extremely intelligent" part of this stereotype, unfortunately, no study supports this idea. Many of the women I've treated were very bright; many were also high achievers. Others were of average aptitude and accomplishment. The American Migraine Study and other research demonstrate that people from all walks of life are plagued by migraines. But women who are high achievers are more likely to have medical resources available to them, are more likely to consult a physician, and are more likely to speak out about their illness than their less privileged "sisters". While there is an increase in the incidence of certain psychiatric disorders as concomitant conditions with migraine, it is neither fair nor accurate to describe all women with migraine as having personality abnormalities. Nor is the abnormal personality the cause of the migraines; one must have a predisposition to migraines.

Excerpted from The Women's Migraine Survival Guide