How to help people understand what migraine is

What you can say to them

Despite migraine being a common condition, it is poorly understood and too often dismissed as just a bad headache.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it’s an invisible condition, and although migraine attacks can be very painful, other people can’t see them.

Secondly, most people get headaches from time to time, so they think they know what migraine is like.

There are ways that you can help them understand the seriousness of migraine and reality of the condition you are living with.

You can help them understand what migraine is

Here are some facts and descriptions of migraine that you could use to explain migraine to them:

  • What is migraine?
  • Migraine is a severe and painful long-term health condition.
  • If you have migraine you will have migraine attacks, which can be a whole-body experience. Common symptoms of an attack can include: head pain, problems with your sight such as seeing flashing lights, being very sensitive to light, sounds and smells, fatigue, feeling sick and being sick. Different people get different symptoms.
  • When you have a migraine attack, you may not be able to function normally. Migraine attacks usually last for between four hours and three days. Some symptoms may start about 24 hours before you get head pain, and end about 24 hours after you stop having head pain. Most people don’t have any symptoms in between migraine attacks.
  • Who gets migraine?
  • One in seven people get migraine, so it’s a common condition.
  • It’s estimated that 190,000 migraine attacks occur every day in the UK.
  • Over three quarters of people who get migraine have at least one attack each month.
  • Chronic migraine, which is when a person gets a headache on 15 or more days a month, eight of which are migraine, is less common. It affects around two in 100 people.
  • People can get migraine at any age. It often starts at puberty and it usually peaks between the ages of 35 and 45 years.
  • It is initially more common in boys than girls but this reverses at puberty with migraine affecting three-times as many women as men.
  • Why do people get migraine?
  • Scientists and doctors don’t know why people get migraine but that it is related to their genes.
  • Scientists and doctors think migraine is the result of abnormal brain activity affecting nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain. We don’t know what causes this brain activity, although for many people there is a link to their genes. If you are sensitive to migraine there are certain triggers which can have an impact. These include stress, skipping meals and low blood sugar, alcohol, hormonal changes (such as periods or menopause), lack of sleep and the environment you are in (lighting, temperature).

Then you can tell them what your migraine is like

As migraine differs from one person to another, you might want to tell them about what your migraine is like.

  • Your migraine symptoms
  • Tell them what hurts when you have a migraine attack and how much it hurts. You could use a score out of ten to explain it. You could also compare it to another type of pain, such as banging your arm or period pain.
  • Tell them if anything else happens when you have a migraine attack such as if you feel sick, feel dizzy, tired, or can’t see properly.
  • Your migraine patterns
  • Tell them how often you have migraine attacks, how long they last, and your triggers (if you have been able to work out any triggers that you have – not everyone can).
  • What helps your migraine
  • You might not know what helps your migraine, but tell them if you do. Some people find that sitting or lying down in a dark room helps. Other people find sleeping helps. Some people find that opening a window or cooling down can help. Eating or having a glass of water can help some people.
  • If you can, tell people what helps prevent you having a migraine attack in the first place, and what you do once you have a migraine attack.
  • Depending where you are, who you are with, and what your doctor has told you about your migraine, there might be medication you can take when you have a migraine attack.

Help them understand the seriousness of migraine

  • Share what it’s like to have migraine
  • Migraine is different from one person to another, so however you feel about your migraine is okay. Don’t be afraid to let people know how your migraine makes you feel.
  • Don’t be afraid to share how migraine affects you and impacts your life, from socialising and taking part in activities that you like, to learning and studying.