Migraine Disease and Depression Go Hand-in-Hand

I’ve had migraines since I was a kid. When I was 11 or 12, I started to get these awful headaches, but I didn’t know what they were. I started missing a lot of school because the only way I could get them to go away was to lie in a dark room. Noise and sounds bothered me.

It was frustrating, because it made it harder for me to be a kid — play on sports teams and socialize with my friends at school.

The headaches continued through high school and progressively got worse. I remember when I was 18, a senior in high school, driving to a funeral in South Texas with my family. I got a headache on the way down, but this headache was different. I was so nauseated I couldn’t open my eyes. I was writing in pain on the floor of the car, because I couldn’t sit up. When we got to the funeral, I couldn’t even get out of the car.

We started the long drive back to Dallas after the funeral, and the pain just intensified. I threw up, which I had never done before during a headache. Finally, when we reached Waco, my parents couldn’t take it anymore. They stopped at an emergency room, and we were immediately seen.

The ER doc said he knew instantly what it was — a migraine. I had never heard that word before. He retrieved a shot of Imitrex and gave me the injection. Within minutes, I felt so much better. No trace of a migraine or nausea, I couldn’t believe it.

As we were leaving, he told my mom to follow up with a neurologist.

I saw a neurologist and explained my symptoms and talked about how much school I was missing. The doctor, who was very sympathetic, diagnosed me with migraines and wrote me a prescription for that magical Imitrex in pill form.

The migraines would show up somewhat randomly, but I did manage to nail down some triggers:

  • Interrupted sleep or not enough sleep
  • Certain smells, like floral scents or cigarette smoke
  • Stress
  • My period
  • Drinking alcohol

Even when I avoided these triggers, the migraines still plagued me. When I went to college, I didn’t find sympathy when I missed class, except one professor whose wife was also a migraine sufferer.

I was missing so much class that I had to file paperwork with the campus’ Students with Disabilities office in order to be granted absence leniency. I still didn’t receive sympathy from my professors. I really wasn’t looking for sympathy, just understanding, but I never found it.

When I started my first job after college, my migraines were worse from all the stress I incurred. I called in a lot. I was embarrassed and felt guilty all the time, and some of my coworkers became resentful, even telling me so. Which now, I understand as part of the stigma of migraine. Boy, it’s hard living with one invisible, let alone two (migraine and depression).

People thought I was lazy, and my friends thought I was avoiding social activity with them. I couldn’t win, not that I’m looking for pity now. It was just frustrating at the time and even now, migraines are grossly misunderstood.

There’s an article in Practical Neurology that speaks about the stigma of migraine, going back to the 18th century.

“In the late 18th century, people with migraine were represented as privileged, self-absorbed individuals, who used their migraine as an excuse for shirking social duties and avoiding social responsibilities. By the 19th century, migraine was perceived as a weakness of women in the lower socio-economic classes. Physicians caring for patients with migraine were also ridiculed as out of touch, incompetent practitioners who encouraged their patients’ neurotic tendencies. A negative, feminized view of the person with migraine has persisted since, whether migraine was viewed as a psychological defect or as the result of an excitable, feminized brain.”

The article includes a 2016 survey by a medical insurance provider that found just 22 percent of employers deemed migraine to be a “serious enough reason for an employee to be absent from work,” lower than for any other reason, including depression, anxiety, stress, the flu, or the common cold. People with migraine must choose which parts of their lives to sacrifice, frequently prioritizing work over others (social, personal, leisure).

That’s so accurate — that migraine sufferers have to choose which parts of life they have to sacrifice.

Between the chronic pain and sacrifices that migraine suffers do make, it takes a toll on mental health. I started experiencing depression an anxiety after my headaches started, so I’m not sure which came first, but I do know that my depression symptoms were intensified by missing school and work, and the pressure and guilt I felt about it.

There is data that shows a connection between migraine and depression. People with migraine are about five times more likely to develop depression than someone without migraine, according to Dawn Buse, PhD, the director of behavioral medicine at the Montefiore Headache Center.

Ms. Buse says that about 20 percent of people with episodic migraine—headaches on 14 or fewer days per month—may also have depression, and that number goes up as the number of headache attack days per month increases. Similarly, about 20 percent of people with episodic migraine have anxiety, and between 30 percent and 50 percent of people with chronic migraine also have anxiety.

None of that is surprising to me.

Here are some stats on migraine in the U.S.:

  • Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households includes someone with migraine
  • Amazingly, 12 percent of the population – including children – suffers from migraine
  • 18 percent of American women, 6 percent of men, and 10 percent of children experience migraines
  • Migraine is most common between the ages of 18 and 44

You can see that migraine is not a rare disease — 12 percent of the population is huge. I also found this interested:

  • Migraine is the sixth most disabling illness in the world
  • Every 10 seconds, someone in the U.S. goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain, and approximately 1.2 million visits are for acute migraine attacks
  • While most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, more than 4 million people have chronic daily migraine, with at least 15 migraine days per month
  • More than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during their migraine

Facts provided by the Migraine Research Foundation.

Just like with any other invisible illness, more attention needs to be paid to migraine — more understanding needs to be applied to migraine as well. You can help end the stigma of migraine by educating yourself and others about it.

Risk Factors for Migraine Sufferers

  • Family history. If you have a family member with migraines, then you have a good chance of developing them too
  • Age. Migraines can begin at any age, though the first often occurs during adolescence. Migraines tend to peak during your 30s, and gradually become less severe and less frequent in the following decades
  • Sex. Women are three times more likely to have migraines
  • Hormonal changes. For women who have migraines, headaches might begin just before or shortly after onset of menstruation. They might also change during pregnancy or menopause. Migraines generally improve after menopause

To learn more about migraine, visit the Migraine Research Foundation here.

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