There is a lot of confusion around migraine terminology. Is it migraine or migraines? Is it correct to say “migraine headache?” The language we use to talk about migraine is a critical part of advocacy and spreading awareness. Learn about some commonly misused migraine terms below.
Migraine is a complex neurological disease with a range of debilitating but often invisible symptoms. Unfortunately, much of the language commonly used to discuss migraine has led to misconceptions and stigma, and many common terms are inaccurate and minimize the impact of migraine symptoms on those who live with this disease. By educating ourselves and those around us about proper migraine terminology, we can help spread awareness and create a more accommodating world for people living with migraine.
Why does language matter in migraine advocacy?
The way we talk about migraine impacts how people perceive the symptoms and the impact of the disease itself. For example, referring to head pain experienced during the headache phase of an attack as “a migraine” confuses the entire disease with just one of its many symptoms. This not only oversimplifies this complex disease but also ignores the many other symptoms people with migraine may experience.
Additionally, referring to specific symptoms that occur during an attack as “a migraine” or “migraines” makes it sound like an occasional problem. In truth, migraine is an incurable, debilitating disease that people must manage their entire lives.
One of the easiest ways to spread awareness, correct misconceptions and reduce stigma is to use accurate terminology when talking to others about migraine. Education and awareness are crucial components of migraine advocacy. If you need resources to help educate yourself or those around you, we have a variety of free resources available, including guides on how to talk to your doctor about migraine and ways to respond to incorrect comments about migraine.
Migraines vs. Migraine
It’s common to hear migraine symptoms or attacks referred to in the plural as “migraines.” This is not only inaccurate terminology, it also doesn’t make sense. Migraine is the name of the disease, which includes a complex set of symptoms that are unique to each individual. For example, someone diagnosed with asthma does not experience “asthmas”—they always have asthma, and they sometimes experience asthma attacks in addition to other symptoms. Saying “migraines” makes it sound like something that comes and goes when in fact migraine is an ongoing disease.
Reducing migraine to one of its symptoms and treating it as a momentary experience rather than a persistent condition also contributes to the stigma surrounding the disease. Referring to someone experiencing momentary “migraines” downplays the full impact of this debilitating disease and minimizes the other symptoms and comorbidities people with migraine experience. For example, people with migraine are more likely to experience depression and anxiety as well as sleep issues, which are conditions they live with all the time, even between migraine attacks.
Migraine Headaches vs. Migraine Attack/Symptoms
Headache is just one of the many possible symptoms of migraine, and symptoms differ from person to person and attack to attack. Head pain is most commonly one of the symptoms experienced during the headache phase, but not always. Other common symptoms include increased fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and trouble focusing or concentrating. Some people, such as those with chronic migraine, may experience these migraine-related symptoms even on days when they do not have a bad headache. There are also several surprising migraine symptoms, such as body chills, phantom smells and mood changes.
Additionally, a migraine attack often occurs in four phases, only one of which typically involves head pain. The first phase is the prodrome, which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The prodrome phase may include many different symptoms such as nausea, light sensitivity and difficulty sleeping. The second phase is aura, which only one-third of people with migraine experience. Aura involves visual disturbances such as flashing lights or partial loss of vision, or sometimes other symptoms such as numbness or tingling on one side of the body, or inability to speak properly. Headache is the third phase, which involves moderate to severe head pain lasting hours to days. The final phase, postdrome, usually lasts for a day or two and includes fatigue and brain fog, among others.
With so many different symptoms and phases to a migraine attack, using the term “migraine headaches” misrepresents the full extent of the disease. In contrast, saying “migraine attack” encompasses and acknowledges the different symptoms and phases someone with migraine may experience.
Migraineur vs. Person With Migraine
Because an “-eur” at the end of a French word means “someone who does,” migraineur directly translates to “someone actively doing migraine.” Many people dislike this term because it makes it sound like people living with migraine have a choice to have an attack. People do not “do” migraine—it is a chronic disease caused by several factors that individuals cannot control.
However, the main reason to avoid use of the term migraineur is that it defines someone by their illness. Migraine may impact a person in a significant and ongoing way, but it is still just one aspect of their life and does not define their identity. Using person-first language like “person with migraine” to refer to individuals living with this disease can help reduce stigma and build support.
Educating and Spreading Awareness
Misconceptions and stigma around migraine make life more difficult for people who are already living with a debilitating disease. Educating ourselves and others is the best way to ensure people understand the full impact and complexity of migraine, and with knowledge comes understanding, compassion, and advocacy.
The American Migraine Foundation is dedicated to spreading awareness and education with a library of migraine resources for people interested in learning more about the disease. Our free resources include tips on discussing migraine with friends and family, finding a doctor and getting a diagnosis, and managing symptoms.
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.