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Why So Many Women Suffer From Chronic Migraines & How It Affects Their Daily Lives

Photo: Alina Kovalchuk on Unsplash
What Causes Migraines In Women? Symptoms, Triggers, Medications, Relief & Treatment Of Chronic Headaches
Self, Health And Wellness

85% of chronic migraine sufferers are women.

By Danielle Miller

There are few things more impeding than physical pain. As migraine sufferers will attest, migraine headaches can cause the fast pace of life to slow dramatically and, many times, can even bring things to a screeching halt.

In addition to producing vast, physical discomfort, the symptoms of migraine headaches interrupt daily routines and postpone important commitments, causing many sufferers to feel frustrated and less in control of their lives.

What causes migraines?

Dr. Michael Sellman, a neurologist in Towson, Maryland, reports that migraine headaches are routinely the most frequent medical complaint seen in his office.

“Migraine headaches typically begin in adolescence or young adult life. They can be genetic in nature and inherited from mother or father.”

While both women and men suffer from these headaches, Sellman reports that women tend to be more likely to experience migraines at some point during their lives.

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As reported by the Migraine Research Foundation, "during the reproductive years, as many as 37% of women suffer. Of those who suffer, 50% have more than 1 attack each month, and 25% have 4 or more severe attacks per month. 85% of chronic migraine sufferers are women. 92% of women with severe migraine are disabled."

“Women get migraine headaches three times more often than men. It is estimated that 18% of all women get migraine headaches and 6% of all men,” explains Sellman.

“There are multiple causes of migraine headaches," he continues. "About 15 percent of migraines occur shortly before a woman's menstrual cycle. Certain foods have been implicated to trigger a migraine. These include chocolate, strong cheese, onions, oranges and tomatoes. Red wine and sometimes beer frequently precipitates a migraine attack. Rapid changes in barometric pressure (impending rain storm) can trigger a migraine headache.”

For many individuals who suffer from migraines, stress is both a symptom and a trigger.

Stress can cause migraines and obviously migraines produce extreme stress.

Sarah Bayle, an editor and project manager who has experienced migraine headaches since middle school, describes the onset of a migraine as a full-body experience.

“Migraines are horrible, full-body pain experiences. During an attack, my body vibrates, and I feel like I am being simultaneously jabbed with pins while my head is slammed against a concrete wall over and over and over. Even the quietest noises begin to sound like bombs imploding. But the pain is not the worst part.”

Bayle goes on to explain that, in her opinion, the worst thing about having to deal with migraines is the stigma attached to the debilitating effects they cause.

This is further compounded by the fact that this particular ailment can be so difficult to treat.

“Doctors, even in this advanced age of medicine, still don't totally understand migraines, and treatment is still limited. We live in a society where personal responsibility is valued above all else. If I had a dollar for every time a doctor, friend, coworker, or family member asked me why I have so many headaches and why I can't just ‘get over’ them, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that this is my fault or a simply matter of will, I would be the richest woman alive. You learn to live with debilitating pain because you have to, and then because you are able to live with it, people question if it's really that bad — it is, and the weight of others' lack of understanding is almost as bad as a migraine,” she says.

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Jennifer Engle, owner of a marketing and communications company, also feels the affects of these debilitating headaches.

She describes the onset of the headaches she experiences, as well as the restrictions she has had to learn to live with as a result of the physical discomfort:

“Sometimes migraines wake me up in the middle of the night, generally with a throbbing pain that starts in the back of my head and moves to above one eye. The pain is excruciating. Any type of light is painful, and often I am nauseated (sometimes to the point of throwing up). I also frequently get chills. Basically, with all these symptoms, I am miserable and find it very difficult to concentrate on anything.”

What kind of migraine relief is available via medications?

Engle agrees that taking migraine medication can be helpful sometimes. Unfortunately, this isn’t a guaranteed remedy by any means, nor is much else when it comes to migraines.

“I do take medication (carry it with me all the time) at the onset, when possible. Usually, it takes 45 minutes to an hour to have any effect. Often, the symptoms get worse before they get better — depending on when in the headache cycle I take them," she says.

"[The pills] do ease the pain, making it somewhat bearable, but I am frequently very tired for a day or so after. If you don't have medication, migraines can last a day or more. Generally, I try to sleep them off. It's a matter of getting to a bed in a dark room. I have to force myself to be calm (not an easy task with the pain) and try to relax enough to fall asleep. I've been known to go into a dark closet or put on sunglasses if I'm at work and have to get something done. It's very frustrating to have migraines, as they never happen at convenient times!”

While medications that target migraine headaches are available, Dr. Sellman advises that migraine suffers speak to a physician, as migraines affect each sufferer differently.

“It is reasonable to see a doctor to confirm this diagnosis and make sure the headache disorder is not due to some other cause," he explains.

On a positive note, migraine headaches can be prevented with medication.

Medication to prevent migraines works very well for the majority of patients. These medications need to be prescribed by a physician.

"A physical examination is necessary before a prescription could be given and follow up monitoring for complications is necessary. One newer treatment that is having some success in preventing migraine is Botox injections,” advises Sellman.

While Sellman points out that medication used to prevent migraines is usually reported to be effective, he also suggests making lifestyle changes to bolster your prevention efforts.

“Migraine headaches can be prevented in part by a healthy lifestyle. Patients should be encouraged to eat small frequent meals to avoid hunger. Personal stress should be reduced as much as possible. Lack of sleep can cause a headache disorder to worsen. A frequently under-appreciated cause can be too much sleep. Therefore do not sleep 10 hours on a weekend if headaches are a problem,” he says.

RELATED: This Video Of Friends & Family Experiencing What Migraine Sufferers Feel Breaks Our Hearts

Migraines can be triggered by a variety of conditions and situations and are generally acknowledged to be similarly unpredictable in their affect on individuals.

One fact that migraine suffers and others who have experienced the effects of debilitating physical pain do acknowledge is the significant limitations these headaches place on day to day life.

Barbara Kasoff, President and CEO of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), speaks to the stresses caused by migraine headaches and the fact that individuals who experience migraines, especially women, have to deal with them as a part of everyday life.

“Migraines affect women in a much greater proportion, and while, incapacitating to all, the ripple effect is much more dramatic for them. When a migraine strikes a woman, unfortunately, way too frequently her obligations can't just be put ‘on hold.’ Family obligations continue on — children still need to get to that important soccer game and snack and dinner are a must for them; days off at work are precious and, if a business owner, responsibility to staff and payroll are always top of mind."

"Migraines are often difficult to ‘power through’," she adds, "and the frequent result is added stress to family and business life. As is the case with many medical issues, more funding needs to go to research.”

RELATED: 5 Reasons You Keep Getting So Many Headaches

Danielle Miller is a freelance writer and editor from the Boston area who has written articles on health and relationship-related topics for various outlets for several years. She is also a book editor, focusing on topics related to science, technology, and user experience.

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