Although the symptoms of migraine, a neurological disorder that affects nerve pathways and brain chemicals, feel anything but invisible when you’re experiencing them, they can be tough to see and understand from the outside. Migraine symptoms can also mimic the symptoms of other conditions. Those two challenges put together are the perfect recipe for misdiagnosis. While many doctors may have good intentions when they investigate your symptoms and offer their diagnosis, the fact remains that mistakes are made — in fact, one study found only one in 20 get the correct headache or migraine diagnosis. As neurologist R. Allan Purdy said, “Bad diagnosis can lead to the wrong treatment, which may cause a bad outcome.”
Here, we’ve made a list of some conditions that migraine is often misdiagnosed as. These conditions have similar symptoms, so you or your doctor may believe they are the cause rather than migraine. But migraine is a serious chronic illness in its own right, and should be considered a possibility when the symptoms fit. Let us know in the comments below what your migraine diagnosis experience was like.
It’s also important to note that migraine misdiagnosis can go both ways, and perhaps you’ve been told you have migraine but actually you have one of the following conditions. See your doctor if you are concerned you may have the wrong diagnosis. You deserve to find your true diagnosis.
Like many invisible chronic illnesses, migraine symptoms may first be interpreted as anxiety or panic attacks. These symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness and head pain — which can, coincidentally, also be symptoms of anxiety. While you can certainly have anxiety in addition to migraine, or develop anxiety as a result of the stress caused by living with migraine, it’s important doctors don’t dismiss the possibility of migraine — especially if you have no reason to believe you are only experiencing anxiety.
“I have vestibular migraine and the doctors thought it was panic attacks or anxiety because of the nausea, vertigo and… the fact that I did feel anxiety because I didn’t know what was wrong with me!” Jessica Rls said.
Meniere’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear, and causes vertigo, hearing problems, nausea and a ringing sound. Some types of migraine also cause vertigo, balance issues, dizziness, and nausea. However, if doctors don’t recognize that these can be symptoms of migraine, you may be diagnosed with Meniere’s disease or another condition that causes inner ear issues.
“I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease at first. I presented fairly classically with spontaneous attacks of vertigo, and most of the rest of the symptoms,” Patricia Embury said. “One neurologist said I had migraine associated vertigo, but that got lost in the hubbub and I didn’t get a proper diagnosis until 10 months later after I started having more classic migraine symptoms.”
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Hemiplegic migraine is frequently thought to be a stroke, due to symptoms of weakness and/or loss of sensation on one side of the body. Hemiplegic migraine attacks may not include head pain and can last several days, which can make things even more confusing.
Related: 5 Tips for Holiday-ing With Migraine
“One doctor thought I’d had a stroke that had been missed. I had a week-long migraine that caused me to slur and fall over a lot as well as being very disorientated,” Laura Jones said.
Aura is a common symptom of migraine, and causes sensory and visual changes, tingling, numbness, inability to speak clearly, and sensitivity to light and sound. These symptoms can overlap with the symptoms of seizures. It is possible to get migraines and seizures, but it’s important that migraine aura symptoms aren’t always assumed to be part of a larger epilepsy diagnosis.
“I was thankfully never misdiagnosed, but I think something should be said for spending years being treated like migraine disease is not a valid diagnosis. For years, I was treated like the symptoms of my migraine attacks were part of a greater problem that could never be found. This led me to be tested for epilepsy three times, I received a cardiac evaluation, and an evaluation of my cervical spine,” Bridget Walker explained.
5. Sinus Headache
Another common condition migraine is misdiagnosed as is sinus headache. One study found that “sinus headache” was the condition people with migraine thought they had most often. However, sinus headaches are actually somewhat rare, and caused by a viral or bacterial sinus infection. Facial pain and headache should go away after the infection is treated.
Meanwhile, migraine attacks can cause pain in the forehead and face, which may lead people (and doctors) to believe they are “sinus headaches.”
After a concussion, you may experience weeks or months of symptoms like headache, dizziness, ringing in ears, blurry vision, and noise and light sensitivity. Many of these symptoms overlap with migraine, so doctors may assume you simply have post-concussion syndrome and not realize you are actually experiencing a separate condition. Dr. Harry Kerasidis wrote for Psychology Today that personal or family history of migraine can make one vulnerable to concussion, and conversely, head trauma can be a triggering factor for migraines. “Care must be taken not to label a new migraine condition as persistent post-concussion syndrome,” Kerasidis wrote.
“They thought it was post-concussion syndrome for two years, which may have been true, but then again, given my medical history, I should have seen a neurologist right from the [beginning],” Maria Gurriere said.
7. Side Effect of Medication
If you’re currently taking a few different medications, headaches may be interpreted to be a side effect of the medications if another cause can’t immediately be found. However, migraine should be taken seriously as a separate condition.
“[I was misdiagnosed with] medication headaches,” Lucy Hill said. “I take a lot of meds for all my conditions and originally my doctor said that, until I said that doesn’t explain the water over the random spots in my eyes when I get one. He backed down a few weeks later because I kept going back every few days.”
Whether you’ve gotten the correct migraine diagnosis or are still searching for an explanation for your symptoms, know that you deserve to be taken seriously and to get the best possible care and treatment. What was your migraine diagnosis experience like? Share in the comments below!