Chronic Migraine Impacts Entire Family

How Does Your Migraine Affect Others?

Anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced a migraine understands how debilitating it can be—it is much more than just a bad headache. A migraine can make your head pound; it can makes your eyes hurt and become sensitive to light. It can make you feel sick to your stomach. It can make you want to sleep for hours until it passes and you begin to feel “back to normal.”

A new study has found that chronic migraine (CM) not only causes physical suffering for the patient, but also adversely impacts the entire family. The Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO) Study found that CM frequently leads to canceled family plans and strained relationships. The online survey included more than 11,000 adults, of whom more than 990 suffered CM.

“We found significant impact in the areas of missing or not committing to activities with spouses and children, difficulty taking care of household and parenting responsibilities, and missing major family events such as holidays or having to cancel family vacations due to migraines,” said lead researcher Dawn Buse, director of behavioral medicine at the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. “We also found substantial emotional impact including respondents reporting that they feel guilty, sad, and frustrated about how migraines impacts their family.”

Dr. Buse found the majority of the respondents said they believe they would be better spouses and parents if they did not have migraines, that they are irritable or short-tempered with their family members due to migraines, and that they worry that migraines impact their family’s financial stability due to missing work or not being able to work at all.

Migraines: A Family Affair

The results of the survey ring true to 33-year-old Bonnie Besserer, who has been suffering from chronic migraines for 20 years. She has had to miss many family holidays, events, and a close friend’s wedding due to her migraines. “My family has learned to say, ‘Oh, Bonnie can’t make it. It happens a lot,” she said. “I feel like no one can really count on me. That’s tough, because I don’t want to be that type of person.”

The survey also included questions for the partners and children of migraine sufferers. Dr. Buse said this is only the second study to include responses from family members of people with migraine.

“Sadly, the results are heartbreaking, but not surprising,” said Dr. Buse, who is also a clinical psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center, where she works with patients who live with CM. “I hear first-hand about the tragic effects that chronic migraine has on every aspect of people’s lives including work and home life on a daily basis,” she says. Dr. Buse shares the results of the survey with her migraine patients so they realize they are not alone, and that it is very common to feel sad, worried, frustrated or guilty about how their condition affects their family. 

“We hope that the results of this study will encourage healthcare professionals who care for people with migraine to ask how it is affecting their lives, and that people with migraine will share that information with their healthcare professionals and family as well,” Dr. Buse noted.

“If family members better understand the scope of impact that migraine can have they may better understand what their family member is going through.  We also want to make sure that people with migraine know that if the effects of chronic migraine start to feel overwhelming, including if they are feeling high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, feel hopeless or helpless or feel that they are at risk to harm themselves, that they speak with their doctor or a mental healthcare provider for help immediately. There are many treatments available that can help.”

Migraine’s Toll

Migraines affect an estimated 38 million to 40 million Americans, including an estimated 3 to 7 million Americans who suffer from CM. Symptoms of a migraine can includeintense pain, throbbing on one side of the head, visual disturbances, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and an intense sensitivity to light, noise and smell. A person with CM has headaches on 15 or more days per month. Some people have migraine every day. 

Unfortunately, Dr. Buse noted, many people living with CM feel isolated, alone, and that others do not understand what they are going through.  “People who have not experienced migraine may mistakenly believe it is ‘just a headache,’” she said. 

The CaMEO Study has also shown that only a very small minority of people with CM have talked to a doctor about their condition, received a diagnosis, or received a prescription for a migraine-specific treatment. 

“This means that the majority of people with CM are not getting the best treatment to manage migraine attacks,” Dr. Buse said. “In addition to medication approaches, there are also very effective non-medication approaches to manage migraine including biofeedback, relaxation therapies and stress management; but our research shows that even fewer people with CM have tried these treatments.”

Dr. Buse’s website,, includes resources for people with CM.

The findings of the online survey were presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

Updated on: 11/19/15
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