“Just a Headache:” Impact of Migraine

Thoughtful responses to the age-old phrase to help navigate migraine conversations

Those living with migraine have likely heard the phrase, “It’s just a headache.” At the American Migraine Foundation, we know the impact it has—especially when it comes from someone you care about. The stigma that migraine is “just a headache” can make it hard for those living with the disease to feel recognized, understood and heard.

We’re here to help those living with migraine respond when someone says their pain is “just a headache.” We asked our Move Against Migraine (MAM) Facebook support group how they would handle the situation. The group includes those with migraine, those supporting someone with migraine, healthcare providers and more.

Aside from the “rolling eyes” emoji, here’s what MAM had to say:

“It’s a disease and it’s genetic.” 

Often when someone says migraine is just a headache, they don’t understand what migraine is. For MAM moderator Teri, her go-to response is to educate on the reality of migraine. She tells them: “Migraine is actually a genetic neurological disease that needs to be taken as seriously as we treat other diseases such as diabetes.” Migraine is hereditary, so if one or both of your parents have it, you have a 50-75% chance of having migraine. 

“Headache is just PART of migraine.”

While “headache” often acts as a catch-all term for head pain, headache is just one aspect of a migraine attack. During the timeline of a migraine attack, different symptoms can appear outside of head pain such as problems concentrating, temporary loss of sight, insomnia, nausea/vomiting, light or sound sensitivity, dizziness and more. These symptoms are what make migraine more than just a headache. MAM moderator Sharron puts it well. “Headache is one of many disabling symptoms we may have when we experience a migraine attack,” she says. 

Moreover, some people do not experience any head pain during a migraine attack, but that doesn’t make their migraine any less real. “The headache of a migraine attack, when it occurs, is only one of a large constellation of possible symptoms,” says Teri. “Very serious and debilitating migraine attacks occur with no headache at all.” 

“You wouldn’t understand it unless you had it.”

Explaining migraine to a person who has never experienced an attack is difficult because the closest comparison to what they’ve experienced is oftentimes a milder tension-type headache—only one of the many migraine symptoms. When someone doesn’t understand aura, nausea or other related symptoms, it can be hard to put themselves into the shoes of someone with migraine. MAM member Ann navigates the conversation by reminding people to respect what you don’t understand. “I politely say, ‘Unless you have migraine, you should only listen,’” she says. 

You don’t have to respond.

We believe that talking about migraine is one way to reduce the stigma and misunderstanding of the disease. But explaining migraine to everyone you encounter can be exhausting. When it feels right, go ahead and start the conversation about this disease. But sometimes it’s just easier to not respond, and that’s okay. If you want to follow-up on a frustrating conversation after the fact, consider sending your loved one a link to our guide to supporting someone with migraine. 

Migraine is widely misunderstood, which can lead to unfortunate generalizations and tricky conversations. The American Migraine Foundation is here to support you as you navigate conversations with your partner, children, office, doctors and more.