An illustration showing a person with thought bubbles, a magnifying glass, a ladder, and gear mechanisms. This is meant to illustrate the myths behind migraines, which are still mysterious today.
Migraines might be a mystery for many, yet sufferers have more tools and knowledge available to them today to combat the debilitating headaches. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Migraines affect more than 39 million Americans, and about 4 million of them suffer from the chronic form of the disease of 15 or more migraine days a month.

Those who suffer from these debilitating headaches frequently encounter difficulty in getting appropriate treatment when they seek help. The reason? Misunderstanding and the unfortunate fact there is no concrete test for migraines.

To clear up some of the misconceptions, I’ve compiled a short myths quiz so you can test your own knowledge and challenge those around you to do the same.

Myth 1: My headache is not a migraine because I do not have an aura.

Most people with migraines do not experience aura with their headaches. An aura is a sensory disturbance caused by changes in electrical activity in the brain that can precede migraines and is most commonly visual in nature (flashing lights, zig-zag lines) but can also involve numbness, changes in speech or other symptoms. Only about 30 percent of people with migraines experience an aura.

Myth 2: There really is not much I can do to prevent a migraine.

A healthy lifestyle is important in migraine prevention. Adequate exercise and avoidance of tobacco and highly processed foods often goes a long way toward fewer migraines. Sleep is another common factor. Improving your migraine pattern is difficult when you have poor quality or insufficient sleep.

Myth 3: My headache is a tension type headache.

Remember Myth 1. Most people do not get an aura. The International Headache Society has released diagnostic guidelines on migraines that are based on things like duration, severity and associated symptoms. Headaches that are severe enough to discuss with your doctor and also involve nausea or light and sound sensitivity are usually migraines. However, it’s always important to seek medical advice to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

Myth 4: Medications don’t work to prevent my migraines.

There are a lot of reasons acute and preventive medications fail for any given person. Preventive agents (things taken every day with a goal to eventually decrease frequency of migraines) typically take months to be effective once you are on an adequate dose. Giving up on a medication too soon or before an effective dosage has been determined by your physician dooms the attempt. Maintaining open and consistent communication with your doctor is important. Also, remember to focus on the lifestyle factors mentioned in Myth 2.

Myth 5: Despite my nausea, if I keep my pill down it may really help my migraine.

Let’s talk about why acute medications (those taken at the start of a headache to get more immediate resolution of pain) fail. If you are nauseated when you take a pill, you aren’t likely to see results quickly. During migraines (especially when nausea is prominent) the gastrointestinal system slows. That pill has to not only make it to your stomach, but also move to the intestines to be absorbed. If you’re just barely able to keep it down, then it’s unlikely to provide much benefit. You might want to explore other options such as intranasal sprays, injectable therapies or suppositories. They tend to be a lot more effective when nausea is present.

Myth 6: It’s just a low-grade migraine. I shouldn’t take anything for it until it gets severe.

Imagine trying to put out a campfire with a bucket of water. Now imagine trying to put it out with that same bucket of water after you’ve let the fire significantly spread. Which scenario is likely to work? Clearly, dampening the fire before it gets out of control is more likely to extinguish it. Migraines work the same way. The earlier you take the medication once you start experiencing pain, the more likely you are to successfully stop the migraine before it gets out of control.

Myth 7: I can take an acute medication every day for my migraine.

Studies have shown that acute medications used for migraines can actually increase the frequency of migraines if taken too frequently. Typically, this happens after two to three days per week of acute medication use. This is akin to daily coffee drinkers waking up one morning with a headache because they slept in and missed their morning cup. The same thing happens with acute medication for migraines, but with even fewer days of use. If you are feeling the need to use your acute migraine medications too frequently, then it’s time to talk to your doctor about preventive measures.