Migraine affects everyone differently, which can make it hard to find a management plan that works for you. Let’s review some common migraine myths to help you sort fact from fiction.
Finding the right approach to manage your migraine is a personal process, and what works for one person may not work for another. It can be tempting to jump in and try a promising new technique that others are swearing by, but it’s important to remember that there are a lot of myths around migraine, some of which can do more harm than good.
Below we break down seven common migraine myths to help set the record straight. Remember to always include your doctor in your migraine management plan. Never change your plan before talking with your doctor.
Myth 1: Light sensitivity is always a migraine trigger.
While light can be a migraine trigger for some, light sensitivity is often a warning sign that a migraine attack has already begun. In these cases, sensitivity to light is actually part of the prodrome stage of a migraine attack. This may mean certain brightness levels or colors of light cause pain or discomfort, or it could just mean you find yourself reacting more than usual to certain types of lighting—like sunlight, glare or fluorescent lights.
So while light sensitivity may in fact be a sign that a headache is right around the corner, this doesn’t mean light is the reason for an oncoming attack.
Mistaking prodrome symptoms with triggers is fairly common among people with migraine. However, the truth is sometimes migraine attacks just happen, and you can create unnecessary stress and worry by assuming common early symptoms of an attack are tied to environmental triggers that need to be avoided.
Myth 2: Chocolate will trigger a migraine attack.
The foods that can trigger migraine differ from person to person, and may even differ for the same person from one attack to another. Although chocolate may be a headache trigger for some, chocolate cravings can also be part of the migraine prodrome stage. Similar to light sensitivity above, when prodrome symptoms involve food cravings, it can be easy to confuse those signs of an oncoming attack with the cause itself.
Instead of cutting out all foods that are commonly reported to be migraine triggers, track your meals and snacks in a journal. This can help you find foods that actually affect your migraine symptoms. This can also help you keep an eye out for other factors that may trigger an attack like stress and lack of sleep.
When it comes to chocolate, Dr. Alison Thaler, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and a member of the American Migraine Foundation’s Editorial Board, notes that for some people the small amount of caffeine may actually be helpful during a migraine attack. However, note that while small amounts of caffeine taken at the onset of an attack may help in certain cases, too much caffeine (or frequent consumption) has been associated with an increased frequency of attacks.
Myth 3: It’s ok to “ride out” a migraine attack to avoid using medication.
Headaches triggered by medication overuse are a very real concern for people managing frequent migraine symptoms, but this does not mean you should avoid treating an attack with acute medication when you really need it. Under-treating migraine attacks can also cause symptoms to become more intense and can make things worse in the long run.
Dr. Serena L. Orr, the director of the pediatric headache program at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and a member of the American Migraine Foundation’s Editorial Board, says “prolonged exposure to pain can lead to a phenomenon called central sensitization, where the brain essentially gets ‘better’ at creating sensations of pain.” This means that allowing yourself to continually experience pain during a migraine attack can actually increase the risk of having more attacks in the future.
Myth 4: If I don’t treat my migraine immediately, I might as well not bother treating it.
While the best time to treat a migraine attack is early on when your pain is still mild, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to relieve symptoms during later stages.
Most treatment options will still work during the later stages of a migraine attack, though some are likely to work better than others. For example, non-oral treatments like nasal sprays and neuromodulation devices may be more effective in treating migraine symptoms during the later stages of an attack, especially for those who experience GI symptoms as part of their migraine.
Myth 5: To get a migraine diagnosis, you need to experience the aura phase of an attack.
You do not need to experience aura in order to get a diagnosis. Everyone’s experience with migraine is different, and there is no guarantee that each person will even go through all stages of a migraine attack. In fact, migraine without aura is more common, as only 25 to 30% of people with migraine experience the aura phase of an attack.
Additionally, the symptoms of the aura phase of an attack are not the same as those that many people experience during the prodrome phase—and not everyone experiences prodrome symptoms the same way.
Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step to receiving the care you need, so you should never avoid talking to your doctor simply because your migraine symptoms don’t match someone else’s.
Myth 6: Migraine is a mental health disorder.
While there are certainly connections between migraine and mental health, migraine is not a mental health disorder. Migraine is a disabling neurological disease that requires its own unique set of preventive and acute treatments to manage effectively.
That said, your migraine management plan may involve lifestyle changes and approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness to help manage your migraine and common mental health triggers like stress. Additionally, some mental health disorders are more common in people with migraine—such as depression and anxiety—and effectively managing these conditions can be an important part of your overall migraine treatment plan.
Myth 7: Vomiting will help stop a migraine attack.
There are a variety of symptoms other than head pain that you may experience during a migraine attack, including nausea and vomiting. For this reason, some people report feeling an improvement in their symptoms after vomiting during a migraine attack.
However, intentionally making yourself vomit can have a number of negative health consequences, and it will not stop a migraine attack.
If you commonly experience nausea during migraine attacks, talk to your doctor about ways to modify your treatment plan. Dr. Teshamae Monteith, University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, and American Migraine Foundation Editorial Board member, reminds patients, “There are a number of non-oral medications, including antiemetics, that may work quickly to alleviate migraine symptoms [like nausea] and severe gastrointestinal symptoms.”
Educating yourself on the common myths of migraine can help you to find a treatment plan that works for you quicker. Remember to always talk to your doctor about your migraine treatment plan and ask questions if you are unsure about a treatment for migraine. Get started by checking out our helpful guide to talking to your doctor about migraine.
The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.