Not just a headache: migraine causing significant disability

More than a quarter of people who live with migraine disease say the condition has caused them to miss school or work for more than five days over a three-month period, a survey from the University of Otago, Wellington, and the Migraine Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand has found.

Half of the 530 people who responded to the survey said they had been unable to do household work, and nearly a third had missed family, social or leisure activities during the period. Almost half met the criteria for severe disability.

It is the first reported survey of people living with migraine in Aotearoa New Zealand. The findings are published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today.

Lead researcher Dr Fiona Imlach, a Senior Research Fellow at the University’s Department of Public Health and co-founder of the Migraine Foundation, says migraine is causing significant levels of disability among New Zealanders, impacting their physical and mental health, their ability to work and socialise, and their family lives.

One in seven people worldwide experience migraine, with the disease affecting two to three times as many women as men. More than 640,000 Kiwis are thought to live with the condition.

Nearly a quarter of those who responded to the survey (23 per cent) had chronic migraine, experiencing headache on 15 or more days a month – the highest level of disability and impairment. Of these, 20 per cent had continuous or nearly continuous headache (five per cent of all respondents) and another 22 per cent had 24 or more days of headache per month (five per cent of all respondents).

Those who completed the survey spoke of living with significant levels of pain which could last for hours or days. One commented: “People don’t understand the excruciating pain and think, ‘it’s just a headache’. I’ve pondered if I could just cut my own head off to make it stop.”

The migraine attacks were sometimes accompanied by debilitating and distressing symptoms, such as loss of coherent speech, paralysis on one side of the body, nausea and vomiting, visual disturbance and even loss of vision, and sensitivity to sounds, light, smell and touch.

Co-researcher Sue Garrett, a Senior Lecturer in the University’s Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, says migraine is leading to anxiety and depression, with people using words such as ‘misery’ and ‘devastating’ to describe the impact of the condition, and talking of it ‘ruining’ their lives.

“Those living with chronic migraine describe only living half a life, of feeling isolated, trapped, lonely and useless. A common theme was the feeling that migraine was ‘stealing (their) life away’. People talked of ‘lost days’ and time they could never get back.”

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