What It's Like Having Chronic Migraines & A Doctor Who Doesn't Believe You
Since I was 18 years old, I’ve suffered from intense migraines — debilitating pain that's usually concentrated on one side of my head. People often ask me what's it's like having chronic migraines, and let me tell you: it's downright exhausting, frustrating, and life-altering. What's more, migraines are often misunderstood by both the medical community and by the general public, according to Harvard Health. However, I know my pain is real; I feel it all the time (three to four times a week). And yet, I regularly have to defend myself against people who try and gaslight me into thinking it’s all imaginary, whether they're friends, family, or — worse — doctors I go to for medical help.
I know I’m not alone in having people question the validity of what I’m going through. It’s a common experience: A woman goes to the doctor to get help with an ailment. The two of them go over each painful symptom one by one, hoping to find the root cause. But instead of receiving compassion and a treatment plan, or having tests ordered to rule out any major, underlying issues, she could easily be met with scrutinizing eyes and doubtful minds from medical professionals who, both explicitly and implicitly, may assert that her lived experiences are a figment of her imagination. I’ve seen it happen to my mom, who was almost sent home from the ER without being helped after complaining of unbearable stomach pain — only to find out she had kidney stones after I pressed the doctors to take a urine test. You've seen it happen to Serena Williams, who openly shared in a 2018 Vogue interview that she nearly died while healing from an emergency C-section, all because her doctors initially brushed off her concerns of blood clots — which turned out to be true and were only looked into further at Williams' insistence.
Put simply, there’s a wide gap between how men and women are treated by doctors when they’re in pain. The pain that women feel is, unfortunately, much more likely to be downplayed by medical professionals: In a 2008 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), researchers found that women in the emergency room are about 13 to 25 percent less likely to be prescribed opioid medications (the strongest kind of painkillers) than men, even when their condition warrants them. And even when these painkillers are prescribed to female patients, women often have to wait longer than their male counterparts to receive their prescription, as outlined in the report.
In another study pointed out by The Atlantic and published by the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics in 2001, researchers found women were "more often perceived as anxious than in pain" by healthcare providers compared to men.
Black patients are far more likely to be undertreated for pain.
For black women, getting help can be even more difficult, as they face both racial and gender stereotyping. Research conducted by the University of Virginia in 2016 showed that black patients are far more likely to be undertreated for pain than their white counterparts, in part due to racial biases in the medical community that black people feel less pain overall. In fact, when researchers asked 222 medical students and residents who participated in the study to rate on a scale of 1-10 the pain levels associated with two similar medical cases for a white and black patient, they found half of them reported lower pain ratings for the black patients versus the white patient.
Having someone downplay your health concerns can be demoralizing.
Whether these discrepancies are always due to gender biases or a lack of medical research on women and pain remains to be seen, as there is still a huge absence of information out there on the matter. However, as more and more women come forward with horror stories about being unfairly treated by medical staff even while in severe pain, there's a strong indication that perhaps there is some degree of prejudice along the bases of gender between the medical community and female-presenting patients.
For me, having someone downplay your health concerns can be demoralizing. As a plus-size black woman, doctors have commonly chalked up my migraines and other chronic health issues (mainly digestive) to being overweight. (“Once you lose weight, you should do X,” they’ll tell me.)
Last year I had awful unexplainable stomach pain for months. The first time I told my primary care doctor about them, they brushed it off without doing any testing. When the pain got worst, I went back to them, and this time around, instead of immediately referring me to a gastroenterologist who could look into the problem further, they recommended I try a keto diet (a high-fat, low-carb diet) to lose weight, which in turn, in their mind, would get rid of the aches. Spoiler alert: My body really just needed antibiotics since I had a stomach infection, not to swap out my carbs for more meat.
Thankfully, I insisted on getting an endoscopy by a gastroenterologist, who eventually found considerable inflammation in my stomach and was later able to diagnose me with an active infection of H. pylori (a common bacterial infection that affects the digestive tract) and prescribed some medication to get rid of it. When it comes to my migraines, however, I didn’t have such luck in finding an effective treatment for them for years.
I saw a swirl of blue and green dots, as if I was looking through a kaleidoscope.
The frequency with which I get migraines makes me a migraineur: a person who deals with chronic unrelenting migraines 15 or more times in a month. According to the American Migraine Foundation, a whopping 12 percent of Americans experience migraines, and the majority of those who do are women. More specifically, research published by NCBI in 2013 that conducted a long-term study of people with migraines in the United States found that women tend to get migraines two to three times more often than men, and they experience migraine-related symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and visual disturbances more often as well.
I still vividly remember one of the worst migraine attacks I’ve ever had: In my left and right periphery, I saw a swirl of blue and green dots, as if I was looking through a kaleidoscope. The fluorescent light over my desk at work seemed brighter than normal — unbearable even. Looking straight ahead, I saw my boss fully immersed in a business call in their office. Before I could capture their attention through a wave or a stern glance, the pain started kicking in. First, it feels like a dull ache on the left side of my head; 10 minutes later, it turns into intense throbbing, like a minion trapped within me incessantly hitting a nail with a hammer.
At the time, I was an editorial assistant to the digital director of a major publication with the most intense schedule. That day, as people approached my desk as they normally would, asking to be penciled into my boss' schedule, I felt my entire body shut down. I could see that their mouths were moving, but I couldn’t decipher exactly what was coming out. All I could feel was the pain — the kind that brings you to your knees, pleading with the world that you promise to be a better person if it just goes away.
I started to believe I was destined to live with such agonizing pain forever.
For me, a host of factors can trigger a migraine episode like that one: stress, skipping meals, lack of sleep, and heightened anxiety. For a while, I treated my migraines with over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relievers that would get rid of the pain within an hour or two. But then this became ineffective, sometimes even causing rebound headaches, which happens after using painkillers too frequently and becoming overly reliant on them, so I eventually had to get stronger medications prescribed to me by my neurologist. When I complained of the nauseating pain, they recommended triptans, a class of drugs that aims to stop migraine-related pain in its tracks and associated symptoms immediately after they've begun. At first, those medications were a godsend, but like the OTC medications, their pain-relieving effects waned after a while. Sleeping away my pain became my only respite, though napping in the middle of the day isn’t exactly feasible with a busy schedule like mine. I started to believe I was destined to live with such agonizing pain forever.
Deep down, though, I knew could no long bear continuing to live in agony, so I went on a mission to find a neurologist who'd finally take me seriously. A year out of college, I found a neurologist who truly cared to not only help me find methods to minimize the frequency of my migraines, but also looked into alternative treatment methods rather than relying solely on pain medication. I started trying Botox with much success. I get several carefully done injections across my forehead and the side and back of my neck every three months; these shots reduce my migraine frequency from almost one a day to four or five a month. I also took meditation classes and learned about the stress-relieving power of staycations.
While I’m not completely pain-free, I’m in a far more manageable state and have far more control over my life than ever before. And it’s all because, finally, someone took me seriously. Understandably, as a woman, it can be easy to dismiss whatever discomfort you've going through when doctors continually discount that you're even experiencing pain at all, but as the old adage goes, you know your body best.
Listen to the warning signs when it's telling you something is wrong and don't give up on finding answers and potential remedies for what you're experiencing. The world may wish to cast you off as being irrational for being a woman speaking up about her pain in a world that often silences you, but if you know in your heart of hearts there's a bigger issue at hand, don't let them. I sure didn't, and now I'm better off because of that persistence.