Migraines are More Than Big Costly Headaches

2010-05-26 | |
Last updated: 2019-10-19

Experiencing an intense, throbbing headache from stress, dehydration, too much sun or other less innocent causes is something that most of us are familiar with. Though we often know better, we might well tell others that we have a migraine simply to indicate that the pain we are feeling is significant. However, a migraine is no ordinary headache as those who suffer from them will attest.

How Many People Experience Migraines?

And there are many people who have an informed opinion regarding migraines. That’s because migraine headaches regularly affect about 30 million Americans or 10% of the population and two thirds to three quarters of those affected are women. As we will see, for society as a whole, migraines pose a significant personal and financial burden.

In Europe, the estimated costs of migraines were roughly $34 billion US in 2005. In the US, migraines cost employers some $8 billion annually due only to employee absenteeism. Also, the direct medical costs of the condition in the US are approximately $1 billion per year. In comparison, the overall costs are about the same as the costs of diabetes. This suggests that migraines are not treated nearly as seriously as they probably should be.

Worse still is that migraines are under diagnosed with only an estimated 30 to 40% of those affected by the disorder having being diagnosed by a physician. This means that the costs associated with the disorder could be that much higher.

Why are Migraines Worse Than a Bad Headache?

So what makes the migraine worse than a bad headache to cause these enormous costs?

Firstly, the symptoms can be very hard to bear. A person suffering a migraine will feel pain that ranges from dull to intense and the pain can sometimes be throbbing. In some cases, the pain can feel like the head is in a vise while in others the pain can feel as if caused by pressure in the skull. In addition to the pain, sufferers will also frequently experience nausea.

Roughly 1 in 3 people who suffer from migraines will also experience an “aura”. This is simply a name for the disturbances experienced that can affect an individual’s vision, hearing or other senses.

A second reason why migraines are so much worse than headaches is that migraines can last quite some time and can recur frequently. The pain can persist from 4 hours to 3 days in many cases if not treated. In terms of frequency, migraines can occur as often as twice per week or as rarely as once a year. Clearly, a headache lasting multiple days and occurring twice per week can significantly impair one’s ability to function.

Though the pain and other symptoms are fairly common for those suffering from the condition, based on research to date, there are many distinct theories and different potential causes for migraines, ranging from problems in blood flow to nerve disorders. As researchers explore these theories, they are gaining a better understanding of the disorder.

What are the Causes of Migraines?

At present, migraines are understood to be the result of both environmental factors and genetics. They can be triggered by changes in weather, insufficient or excessive sleep, being overly hungry and by menstruation among many causes. Numerous foods such as caffeine, alcohol, fried foods, processed meats, and chocolate are also potential triggers.

As for the genetic contributions, studies involving twins have determined that roughly 60 percent of the risk factor for developing migraines is attributed to genetics. As well, the risk of migraines is double for those who have relatives with epilepsy.

What are the Related Risks for Migraine Sufferers?

Another factor making migraines far worse than a headache is that those who suffer from the disorder also face other health risks. Based on research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, medical science has determined that the risk of stroke for women with migraines is double that of the regular population, even more so for women under 45. Similar findings from Johns Hopkins University put the risk of stroke at 2.3 times that of those who do not suffer from migraines.

The risk of stroke also increases with the number of migraines experienced per month. From findings identified at Harvard Medical School, women who experience migraines weekly have 3 times the risk of a stroke compared to women who experience less than 1 migraine per month.

Related to the risks of stroke, some of those who suffer from migraines also have an increased risk of blood clots. Researchers at Innsbruck Medical University determined that those who suffer from migraines had 2.4 times the risk compared to non-migraine sufferers of developing such clots. In addition to causing strokes, these life threatening blood clots can also travel to the lungs or heart to do damage.

Considering that the costs of strokes to the US are roughly $43 billion per year US and that 10% of the population suffering from migraines is at 2 to 3 times the risk, the economic impacts of migraines quickly become even more significant.


Though it is common to complain about something giving us a migraine, the differences between a headache and a migraine are fairly easy to understand. The costs associated with migraines can be a bit harder to understand until we consider just how long a migraine can keep a person off their feet. Add to that the health risks associated with the condition and what seem like a bad headache is more clearly seen as a big financial headache.

Do you suffer from migraines? How has this affected your quality of life? Share your opinions in the health forums.

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