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The Killer Headache: Making Sense of Migraines

Azriela Jaffe

Migraines take throbbing head pain to a whole new level. What they really feel like (you’ll be surprised), why women are more susceptible than men, plus the latest prevention strategies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

 Just about every individual endures a headache or two throughout the year. So most of us think we have a clue about what a migraine must feel like — head pain, albeit more severe. Yet doctors and migraineurs (as they’re called) are quick to correct this assumption.


“Tension headaches are annoying, but are almost never disabling. The individual can take an Excedrin, Motrin, or Tylenol, and keep on working,” explains Dr. Harvey Blumenthal, recently retired, who was vice head of neurology and a clinical professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. During his 32 years working in the field, he saw many migraineurs who couldn’t — even if they wished — “tough it out.” The pain was just too severe. He adds that “even migraineurs with moderate symptoms who keep on working will only be 50 percent productive. Patients with severe migraines, however, will generally require bed rest and a dark room until the worst of the migraine passes.”

Ironically, people who most misunderstand migraines are often those who suffer from a mild form of the disorder. “They think, ‘I get migraines and they don’t keep me down. Other people must not be as strong, or motivated as I am,’ ” notes Dr. Richard Lipton, professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Montefiore Headache Center in the Bronx.

This attitude frustrates Dr. Lipton: “For most disorders we realize there is a spectrum, and we don’t stigmatize people for being at the severe end — we feel compassion for them. But for migraines, we still stigmatize those most severely affected.” 

The pain of a strong migraine can be so intense that around half of migraine sufferers (there are approximately 36 million in the US) report severe disability or require bed rest during attacks — and 35 percent miss one or more days of work or school in a three-month period. “Of migraine sufferers, 4 percent experience chronic migraine — that’s living with symptoms for at least 15 days a month!” exclaims Dr. Gretchen Tietjen, director of the Headache Research and Treatment Center.

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