3 False Migraine Myths that Can Endanger Your Health

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Lots of people, including some physicians, underestimate the dangers inherent in having migraine disorder. "It's just a headache!" they may argue. "Pop a Tylenol and get on with it!"

But migraine disorder is not "just a headache." It's a serious neurological condition that on occasion permanently disables or even kills people.

Don't fall into the "it's just a headache" trap. Here are three common myths surrounding migraine disorder and its treatment, plus the actual facts regarding each myth.

Myth #1: Don't Bother to Schedule a Doctor Visit

MYTH: You don't need to see a doctor for a headache, even for a migraine.

FACT: This is a dangerous (albeit easy) trap to fall into. Yes, sometimes a headache is just a headache ... but sometimes, a headache can indicate you have a serious condition that requires medical attention.

According to the American Headache Society, you should contact your doctor if:

  • You have more than two headaches every week
  • You need pain medication every day to control your headaches
  • You have a headache accompanied by a stiff neck or fever (these could indicate an infection or bleeding in your brain)
  • Your speech is slurred, you're not balancing well, your arms or legs are weak or numb, or your limbs tingle (these could be signs of a stroke)
  • You've had a head injury and you're sleepy or feel confused (this could indicate a subdural hematoma, which is bleeding between your brain and your skull)
  • Your headache symptoms change

Any of these could signify another medical problem or a change in your diagnosis. Your doctor can sort out what's going on and make any necessary adjustments to your treatment.

Myth #2: Any Old Doctor Will Do

MYTH: You don't need to see a neurologist or a headache specialist.

Any doctor can recognize and properly treat your migraine disorder.

FACT: Many doctors fail to recognize migraine and misdiagnose it. In fact, leaders of the medical sub-specialties neurology and head pain have acknowledged that migraine disorder is not well understood.

More than half of those with migraine have never been diagnosed with the condition, which can be mistaken for a variety of other conditions that range from sinus headache to stroke and epilepsy.

Migraine is the fifth most common reason for a visit to the emergency room. Unfortunately, it's also not uncommon for doctors who evaluate people with migraines in the emergency room to turn them away without medication because those doctors believe they may be seeking drugs to abuse.

To properly treat and manage your migraine disorder, you need to see a physician who specializes in treating people with migraine.

Myth #3: Migraine Is a Quality of Life Issue

MYTH: Migraine isn't so much a health issue as it is a quality of life issue.

FACT: Although I know of physicians who believe this, the truth is that migraine can be extremely dangerous. In fact, the National Migraine Association reports that, by some estimates, more people died from migrainous stroke last year than were murdered by handguns.

Unfortunately, many of those who suffer with migraine or other headache disorders are used to not being taken seriously by their physicians, and as one consequence may not take their conditions as seriously themselves.

One young woman I knew was in the throes of a multi-day migraine attack. Her medications weren't helping, but she hadn't sought emergency care. After seven days, she began having seizures and then suffered a disabling stroke.

If the headache phase of your migraine has lasted for more than 72 hours, with no headache-free periods lasting more than four hours, it's an emergency and you need aggressive treatment. This treatment could include fluid and electrolyte replacement, intravenous pain relief, drug detox, and help with nausea and vomiting.

Remember that 27% of all strokes suffered by people under age 45 are caused by migraine, and stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Don't ignore a migraine, especially if it lasts more than three days. Seek help.

Sources:

American Headache Society. When to See Your Doctor for a Headache or Migraine fact sheet. Accessed Dec. 1, 2015.

Burch RC et al. The prevalence and burden of migraine and severe headache in the United States: updated statistics from government health surveillance studies. Headache. 2015 Jan;55(1):21-34.

Minen MT et al. Evaluation and treatment of migraine in the emergency department: a review. Headache. 2014 Jul-Aug;54(7):1131-45.

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