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Study finds migraine sufferers are stigmatized

Friday - 7/19/2013, 4:35am  ET

WASHINGTON - Those who experience migraines have to deal with a lot more than pain. It turns out many migraine sufferers ache in silence, due to the stigma attached to the headaches.

Researchers at the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont say judgment passed on migraines is on a par with the stigma experienced by people who have epilepsy or panic attacks.

The research team polled 765 adults online to assess the stigma they attach to certain illnesses. Study participants were asked their thoughts about working or socializing with someone who has a specific condition.

Dr. Simon Fishman, a neurologist with Integrated Neurology Services in Northern Virginia, says he is not surprised by the findings. He says a lot of his patients complain they don't get enough support at home or in the workplace.

"People still view headaches as a weakness of character, or wanting to get out of something," Fishman says.

Because of this, he finds many migraine sufferers feel like they are on their own when it comes to handling migraines. Often they will downplay their symptoms or opt out of medical help.

"Part of that has to do with not wanting to miss work. Part of that has to do with trying to suffer through it and be strong," he says.

But the fact of the matter is, a migraine can be debilitating.

"When people have migraines, they are as disabled as people having seizures. They are incapable of doing what is required of them, not just because the headaches are bad, but also because they may be throwing up, they may be dizzy and not be able to stand or they could have completely lost vision," Fishman says.

Almost 30 million Americans suffer from migraines, and the overwhelming majority of sufferers are women. Fluctuations in estrogen can be one of the triggers, but changes in barometric pressure and even certain foods -- such as processed meats, cheeses and red wine -- also can bring on the headaches.

There are treatments available to help patients control the frequency and intensity of the headaches. Fishman says every patient needs to have an individual plan to manage migraines. It is important for migraine sufferers to have understanding family members and co-workers.

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