Women are three times more likely to experience migraine than men01. But when you look behind that headline number you find this statistic masks the even greater and more disproportionate impact the condition is having on the female population.
‘It’s like being hit by a bus’ – this is how Ciara O’Rourke explains the toll a migraine attack can have on her body.
“The symptoms I experience during an acute attack include pain, nausea, vomiting and photophobia,” she says. “There are times when I need to stay in bed for up to three days after an attack, just to try and get over the effects and to feel ‘normal’ again.”
Ciara, who documents her experiences of migraine and offers peer-to-peer support for those in a similar position, is one of an estimated one billion people in the world affected by migraine02.
This complex neurological disease often accompanied by disabling symptoms01 is much more than the ‘bad headache’ it is so often wrongly characterised as. It can result in all the symptoms Ciara mentions and more. Those affected regularly experience poor concentration, difficulty finding words, transient amnesia, and a reduced ability to navigate familiar environments03.
Women are three times more likely to experience migraine attacks than men, but recent global research shows this impact is more acute than that statistic reflects. In almost every area of life we investigated, we found a noticeable difference on the impact of migraine on women compared to men.
When it came to broad impact, 71% of women reported their overall health and general well-being was affected by migraine, compared to 63% of men01.
This split was reflected broadly across our findings. Like Ciara, who says she is left “exhausted on an almost daily basis”, 58% of women report they are left feeling exhausted, compared to 45% of men04.
This emotional toll is also reflected in increased levels of sadness (women 38%, men 30%) and a feeling of being misunderstood (women 23%, men 17%)04.
“There are days that I simply can’t get out of bed,” Ciara says. “These are very tough as it is so difficult to hear the hustle and bustle from the kids downstairs and not be a part of it.”
Concerns about the impact not just on themselves, but also on their children, are higher amongst women (60% compared to 44% for men)04. This can cause anguish for mothers.
“I have a six-year-old and an eight-year-old,” says Sarah Rathsack on her channel. “I wanted to be this superhero mom that could do it all.
“I feel guilty about the smallest things, maybe like that dinner isn’t made that night or they have to go to help themselves to get things, she says. “I feel guilty about not being well enough; I don’t want to see my mom feeling sick or sad and I don’t want them to see me this way.”
Of course, you don’t need to be a mother to suffer the mental impact of migraine.
The effect the condition had on Danielle Newport Fancher was so severe that she decided to ‘quit her life’ because she ‘couldn’t take it anymore’.
“I had been in constant pain for around two years, without a minute’s break,” Danielle says. “All the while, I managed to work at a rigorous job that required a great deal of travel. Something had to give.”
“My illness had stolen my social life, my health, my body — I was skin and bones — my excitement about my future, and now my career and life in New York,” she says.
Danielle’s solution was to move to Central America and live in a cabin by the beach.
“I woke each morning with the howler monkeys above my cabin and swam in the ocean as much as I could, health permitting,” she says. “My days were open, and free for whatever I wanted to do — most of the time that meant reading books, doing yoga, and meditating. And lots of resting.”
“I still lived in pain every day, that didn’t change,” she adds. “But my time on the beach was calm, and it gave me a chance to slow down from the constant hustle of my life back in New York. I returned to the United States after a month away, but it would be another seven months before I was able to return to work or a semblance of regular life.
Danielle is keen to stress that she is aware that she was lucky to be in a position to take such a leap of faith – and do it in so dramatic a fashion. In fact, many women feel they don’t have the support they need to help them manage their condition.
Nearly half the proportion of women feel governments and society take migraine seriously, compared to men (women 11%, men 21%) 4. At the same time, men are more often part of a patient support group (at 17%) than women (10%)04.
More needs to be done to understand and appreciate the impact migraine has on both men and women who are affected by the condition. But there is no question the impact of migraine falls disproportionately on female migraine patients.
If you, or someone you know, want to learn more about migraine or access our network of patient contributors and other resources, visit Life Effects – an initiative shaped by patients and caregivers, for patients and caregivers.
Together, we explore the latest science and thinking around migraine. Whether it's a new piece of research or a fresh look at triggers, we highlight straightforward, useful insights that are relevant to you, with content available for US and European audiences.