How to Explain Migraine to Someone Who Doesn't Have It
Let’s start with a basic truth: It's impossible to fully understand the migraine experience unless you have experienced migraines yourself. Not only that, but this disorder affects people in such different ways that one person’s migraine symptoms can be entirely different from another’s.
Nevertheless, sometimes you have to explain what migraine feels like — to a friend or loved one, a child, or even your boss. “Though there is no one uniform way to describe what a migraine feels like for a person without a migraine,” says CEFALY Director of Medical Affairs Michael A. L. Johnson, MD, “there is one common thread that even people without a migraine should understand and empathize with: Migraine is debilitating and negatively affects the quality of life of those who suffer from them.”
How to Explain Migraine to Someone Close to You
Friends, significant others and family members genuinely care about you and want to understand how you feel. At the same time, they also may have misconceptions about what migraine is like — for instance, that it’s “just a bad headache,” or that it’s “all in your head.”
Tell them that migraine is not a headache but a complex neurological disorder. It’s a physical illness, not a mental or emotional condition. Describe what your specific symptoms feel like, whether that’s aura (a distortion in sensory perception or neurological function); severe, throbbing, pulsating head pain; nausea; sensitivity to light, sound, or smell; etc. Give them a vivid example, if you can — for instance, some people describe the pain as a red-hot poker stabbing their brain, or a vice squeezing their head.
“All of us who have migraine suffer not only from the attacks themselves but from this common
conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin, that we are making ourselves sick, that we ‘bring it on ourselves,’” Joan Didion wrote in her powerful essay on migraine, “In Bed.” If your friend or loved one thinks that you, too, could just feel better if you wanted to, tell them this is an incorrect and hurtful belief. Point them to resources like the American Migraine Foundation or the National Headache Foundation to help them learn what migraine is.
How to Explain Migraine to a Child
If you’re a parent living with migraine, you may worry about the effects on your children. Don’t try to conceal the reality of your migraine experience from them — children are more resilient and perceptive than we give them credit for. Dr. Dawn Buse, a migraine researcher and clinical professor of neurology, advises talking to your kids about it at a calm time, when you’re not having a migraine attack.
Tailor your explanation to your child’s age and level of understanding. Explain that, while migraine attacks are painful, they are temporary and they’re not going to kill you or cause permanent damage. Acknowledge that your child might feel scared or anxious when you’re having a migraine attack, but it’s not their fault and it will get better. Give them concrete ways they can help, such as closing blinds or bringing you an ice pack or your CEFALY.
How to Explain Migraine to a Boss
First, don’t apologize for having migraine! It’s a common neurological condition, not a professional weakness. Remember, too, that you are not obligated to share private medical information with your manager or coworkers.
When you’re explaining migraine to a boss, stay focused on your goals. Are you trying to manage your boss’s expectations for taking sick days and managing your workload? Explain that, while you can’t predict when you’ll need days off because of migraine, you can have a plan in place for keeping your productivity high.
Do you need certain accommodations for migraine in the workplace? Ask for those things — such as a quiet workspace, soft lighting or a fragrance-free policy — in a matter-of-fact way, and explain why they’re essential. “Investing in blue light screen filters, natural light sources, and ergonomic workstations; enforcing quiet areas; and providing easy access to fresh air, water fountains, and restrooms will greatly improve the productivity of workers with migraine — and likely other employees as well,” writes Olivia Begasse de Dhaem, MD, a board-certified neurologist and headache specialist at Stamford Health.
How to Explain Migraine to a Doctor
If you’re seeking a formal migraine diagnosis, you’ll want to be as specific as possible when speaking with your healthcare provider. This will help your provider — ideally, a headache specialist/neurologist — understand your symptoms and fine-tune your migraine treatment plan.
Keeping a migraine journal can help. The easiest way to track your symptoms is the free CeCe migraine management app from CEFALY Technology. It’s an intuitive way to log your migraine triggers and symptoms and recognize trends over time. Create personalized graphs and reports that you can share with your healthcare provider.
Thinking about adding CEFALY to your migraine treatment plan? Discover how CEFALY works and see how this clinically proven device can help your migraine pain.
Reviewed by: Deena E. Kuruvilla, MD, a board-certified neurologist and the director of the Westport Headache Institute, where she employs a holistic biopsychosocial approach to diagnosis and treatment. She held clinical appointments at the Yale University School of Medicine prior to starting her own practice and has authored many articles, book chapters, and research publications.