Conference Coverage

Migraine-related stigma is common and underappreciated



Almost a third of patients with migraine have experienced some form of stigma, new research shows. Results from the OVERCOME population-based survey study, which included more than 59,000 respondents, showed about 32% reported experiencing migraine-related stigma “often” or “very often.”

Even those experiencing only a few headaches per month said they experienced negative attitudes from others about migraine.

“We have been utterly blind to the burden people with migraine experience in terms of how their disease is appreciated by others. It’s time to get busy and address this very stubborn social phenomenon,” said the study’s coinvestigator, Robert E. Shapiro, MD, PhD, professor emeritus, department of neurological sciences, Larner College of Medicine, University of Vermont, Burlington.

Dr. Robert Shapiro, professor of neurological sciences at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Dr. Robert Shapiro

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society.

Population-based research

Stigma is defined as the discounting or discrediting of an individual with a trait that deviates from social norms. To date, there have been no significant population-based studies of how these attitudes affect individuals with migraine.

OVERCOME is a cross-sectional, longitudinal, prospective, web-based survey conducted in a representative sample of the United States population. For this new analysis, researchers pooled data from surveys conducted in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

The analysis included 59,004 respondents (mean age, 41.3 years; 75% women; 70% White) who reported one or more headache or migraine attacks during the previous 12 months and who met criteria for migraine from the International Classification of Headache Disorders. Among the patients, 35% had a college degree, and 89% suffered episodic-type headaches.

Researchers used the following four patient-reported outcome measures:

  • Migraine Disability Assessment, which quantifies number of days missed at work, home, or social events over the previous 3 months
  • Migraine Interictal Burden Scale–4, which measures burden of migraine between attacks over the previous 4 weeks
  • Migraine-Specific Quality of Life Role-Function Restrictive, which assesses the functional effect of migraine on social and work-related activities over the previous 4 weeks
  • Migraine-Related Stigma

For the latter, the investigators used two measures – the degree to which others think migraine is used to acquire secondary gain, such as avoiding commitments, and the degree to which others minimize the burden of migraine.

One of the most stigmatizing disorders

Results showed that 31.7% of participants reported experiencing stigmatization from one or both migraine-related stigma categories often or very often – a result Dr. Shapiro characterized as “pretty shocking.”

Participants with chronic headaches, defined as having 15 or more headache days per month, made up 11% of the sample. About 47% of these respondents felt stigma often or very often.

However, even 25% of participants with three or fewer headache days per month reported stigma.

“This is a fundamental tip that we are not really understanding the concerns that drive burden for people living with this disabling disease,” Dr. Shapiro said.

Some previous studies that compared levels of stigmatizing attitudes regarding various diseases showed that migraine is more stigmatized than even epilepsy, a condition “equated with demonic possession in biblical times,” he noted.

One study used machine learning to measure the number of pejorative or negative terms associated with various diseases. “Shockingly, migraine was one of the most stigmatized diseases,” said Dr. Shapiro. “It was as stigmatized as gonorrhea by certain measures.”

Results from the new study showed that, irrespective of the number of headache days experienced per month, there was a threefold increase in interictal burden among those reporting stigma often or very often, compared with those who didn’t report stigma.


Recommended Reading

Findings raise questions about migraine and sleep
MDedge Neurology
Psychedelic drugs ‘truly have potential’ in headache care
MDedge Neurology
Bariatric surgery can be a tool to relieve migraine
MDedge Neurology
Recommended headache treatments get mixed reception in EDs
MDedge Neurology
Autoimmune disorder drugs top list of meds linked to headache
MDedge Neurology