October 5, 2016

Migraines: More Than Just a “Headache”

By Natalia Gurevich, SWHR Communications Intern

For those who have never been affected, the distinction between a headache and a migraine can be hard to define. Headaches affect the head, are caused by stress, exhaustion, et cetera, and are painful [1]. Migraines are a type of headache that display all the same factors but on a greater scale. For individuals who suffer from migraines, the difference in severity is very real.

Migraines are painful headaches that typically center on one side of the head and are often accompanied by nausea and blurred vision [1]. Migraines are a debilitating condition that many suffer through without proper support or treatment. Those who have never experienced one might pass migraines off as a nuisance, but for those who do suffer from migraines, living their lives can become a daily struggle.

There are two types of migraines: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Most people suffer from the latter [5]. Auras are usually visual disturbances that include issues with light and movement. Sometimes auras can also be touching sensations (sensory), movement (motor), or speech (verbal) disturbances [1]. All of these symptoms can affect a person’s ability to function. Particularly if left untreated, a migraine can last anywhere from four to 72 hours [1].

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, an estimated $36 billion is spent annually on healthcare and lost productivity costs related to migraines [2]. Individuals who suffer from migraines pay an estimated 70 percent more in healthcare costs than those who do not [2]. Despite the higher healthcare costs, many who suffer from migraines do not seek proper treatment. More than half of those who suffer from migraines never get diagnosed, and of those who are diagnosed, the majority does not seek treatment [2].

Migraines are especially common in women, affecting about 28 million women in the U.S. [2]. Women are three times more likely to suffer from the condition than men and are 2.7 times more likely to suffer from chronic migraines (migraines that occur more than 15 times in a month-long period) [3, 5]. Not only are women affected at a much higher rate, they also experience more severe symptoms and a greater range of them as well. Nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual aura are more prevalent in women compared to men [3, 4]. Women are also more likely than men to experience longer and more intense migraines, and have migraines that negatively affect their daily routine [3, 4].

Migraines disproportionately affect women for multiple reasons. Contributing factors to the condition include stress, exhaustion, and tension in the neck muscles, and especially change in hormone levels during menstruation [6-9]. Women who suffer from migraines are shown to have episodes frequently that coincide with menstruation. Studies also show that women who typically suffer from migraines see a decline in migraine episodes during pregnancy and menopause, when hormones are at either a stable low or high [10]. Although female sex hormones like estrogen are a major reason why women suffer from migraines at such a high rate compared to men, there are other factors that also contribute and need to be explored.

There is stigma attached to the condition for many women, and many worry employers might not take migraines seriously and instead view it as an excuse to avoid work [11, 12]. As a result, many ignore their symptoms, don’t alleviate the condition, and don’t get the support they need. If you suffer from migraines, talk to your healthcare provider about your options.

SWHR encourages women to be advocates for their own health and play an active role in their healthcare. Learn more about the work we do by visiting our website.


  1. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/home/ovc-20202432
  2. https://americanheadachesociety.org/ahslink/the-migraine-research-foundation/
  3. Buse, D.C., et al., Sex differences in the prevalence, symptoms, and associated features of migraine, probable migraine and other severe headache: results of the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention (AMPP) Study. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 2013. 53(8): p. 1278-1299.
  4. Bolay, H., et al., Gender influences headache characteristics with increasing age in migraine patients. Cephalalgia, 2015. 35(9): p. 792-800.
  5. https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/more-than-just-a-headache/
  6. Wober, C., et al., Prospective analysis of factors related to migraine attacks: the PAMINA study. Cephalalgia, 2007. 27(4): p. 304-14.
  7. Johannes, C.B., et al., Relationship of headache to phase of the menstrual cycle among young women: a daily diary study. Neurology, 1995. 45(6): p. 1076-82.
  8. MacGregor, E.A. and A. Hackshaw, Prevalence of migraine on each day of the natural menstrual cycle. Neurology, 2004. 63(2): p. 351-3.
  9. Stewart, W.F., et al., Menstrual cycle and headache in a population sample of migraineurs. Neurology, 2000. 55(10): p. 1517-23.
  10. MacGregor, E.A., J.D. Rosenberg, and T. Kurth, Sex‐Related Differences in Epidemiological and Clinic‐Based Headache Studies. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 2011. 51(6): p. 843-859.
  11. Moloney, M.F., et al., The experiences of midlife women with migraines. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 2006. 38(3): p. 278-285.
  12. Rutberg, S. and K. Öhrling, Migraine–more than a headache: women’s experiences of living with migraine. Disability and rehabilitation, 2012. 34(4): p. 329-336.