Anyone who suffers from migraines can tell you that it's no ordinary headache. This sudden and debilitating condition can strike without warning, no matter if you’re in the middle of an important presentation at work or sitting in the audience at your child’s dance recital. There’s no telling how long or intense the attack will be, making it a physical and emotional nuisance. And often, migraine sufferers can see negative impacts on their relationships.
Dr. Cynthia Armand, a neurologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, says migraines are triggered by various factors including air quality, diet, lack of sleep, and stress. “Experts recognize migraines as an intrinsic brain disorder,” explains Armand. “There are various nerve centers that communicate ongoing signals resulting in ongoing pain signaling. Several chemicals and proteins are involved in creating a migraine, and they are triggered by factors that push a brain susceptible to a migraine into an actual attack.”
Migraines can bring about a wave of symptoms including throbbing and pulsing pain on one or both sides of the head, nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. It's no wonder that migraines are considered one of the world's most debilitating conditions worldwide next to Alzheimer's disease, alcohol abuse, and schizophrenia, according to the World Health Organization.
Most migraine sufferers find it nearly impossible to interact normally while experiencing one, which of course, can have an impact on relationships. “We know based on evidence that migraines affect academic, social, family and personal domains of life,” says Dr. Armand. “[Migraine sufferers] often miss joyous activities with their family members. They’re unable to keep up with daily chores or care for others in the household. They might also feel guilt for underperforming at work at home.”
The condition also causes sensitivity to stimuli like light and noise, which can cause irritability, leading them to lash out at a partner for turning up the volume during a football game, or at a child for spilling juice on the carpet. Dr. Armand says this is just one of the ways migraines contribute to strained relationships.
What further complicates relationships for migraine sufferers, says Dr. Armand, is the fact that it's an “invisible disability,” in which the afflicted person may not appear to be sick to those around them. “When the patient is unable to engage in their everyday [activities] during an attack, there’s this perception that they’re faking because there is no visual representation of what’s wrong with them,” she says. “They’re not in a wheelchair, limping or walking with a cane.” Dr. Armand says this is one of the reasons migraines sufferers feel frustrated in relationships, especially romantic ones.
The chances that you have or know someone who has experienced a migraine is quite high. According to the CDC, 15.3% of Americans aged 18 years or older reported having a migraine or severe headache within the past three months. Patients can’t predict nor control its onset, and COVID-19 has only lessened the options for relief since many in-office visits were canceled at the height of the pandemic.
“A lot of patients have been struggling mentally and emotionally with it,” says Dr. Armand. “Many therapies and hands-on treatments like nerve block injections and botox could not be received [during quarantine.] You can’t get an injection virtually, so there was a lot of anxiety around [not knowing] what was going to happen during an attack.”
Thankfully, medical facilities have steadily begun to open, but the interpersonal challenges of missing life's precious moments during a migraine is still a concern for some. It can be extremely difficult to watch someone you love suffer in pain while you're at a loss for what to do. Dr. Armand suggests that if you’re cohabitating or in a relationship with someone who suffers from chronic migraines, the first and most vital way to help is to “believe them when they tell you something is wrong.”
She explains: “Someone with migraines spends the majority of their time proving to the outside world that something is wrong, so the last thing they need is their own [loved ones] to not believe what’s happening.”
Another tip she suggests is educating yourself about migraines and their common triggers, and even accompanying them to doctors' visits. For those married to or dating someone who experiences migraine episodes, having patience with your partner is key. “You might have to cancel dinner plans or pick up the responsibilities with the kids,” says Dr. Armand. “You don’t want to show that you’re frustrated in the middle of an attack. All of that requires patience and not showing you’re upset in the moment.”