Men and the Stigma of Migraines

man with a headache

Moyo Studio / Getty Images

Migraine headaches can be debilitating. Due to socio-cultural pressures on men to show strength and vitality and the long-held bias by physicians about this disease, migraine has been relegated to being a “mere” woman’s disorder.

Men are not reporting symptoms or seeking out treatment for these incapacitating headaches though they are adversely affected by them.

What Is a Migraine?

Migraine

A migraine is a type of headache that causes throbbing pain. This pain is usually felt on one side of the head. Some people might feel nauseous or be sensitive to light and sound when they have a migraine.

Some people get auras or visual cues right before the onset of a migraine. Other symptoms include:

  • Sweats
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Extreme tenderness in the head and scalp area

Additionally, migraines can be debilitating and last for hours or days.

Why Is There Stigma Around Men Getting Migraines?

The medical system’s long-held perception of migraine being a woman’s disorder contributed to its stigma. In Joanna Kempner’s book, Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health, she discussed how despite migraines being a neurological disease, because it primarily affected women, physicians and society feminized and trivialized it.

In many cultures, men need to be seen as strong. To avoid showing weakness, men may neglect signs of aches or pains and carry on. They are less likely to seek out care for what they perceive as something as minor as a headache.

Christopher Gottschalk, MD, FAHS, the Director of Headache Medicine at Yale’s Neurology department, the Chief of General Neurology at Yale and Assistant Professor at Yale University School of Medicine, said the occurrence of this type of headache is three times higher in women than in men around the world.

Dr. Gottschalk also emphasized how migraines have long been considered a "woman’s disorder." As a result, he said, “Men don’t want to be seen as having a woman’s problem.”

Christopher Gottschalk, MD, FAHS

[A] migraine is still so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche as weakness, failure, and an inability to cope.

— Christopher Gottschalk, MD, FAHS

Erasing the stigma of migraines is imperative for men. Dr. Gottschalk encourages men to acknowledge their migraines instead of writing them off, which is validating to themselves and those around them. “Seeing it for what it is will make life better for everybody,” he said.

Recent Findings About Men and Migraines

New cases in young boys in kindergarten are higher than in young girls. “In fact, about 5 boys per thousand get migraines and they should be getting diagnosed. But when a boy says his head hurts it’s seen as a psychological problem, not a medical problem,” said Dr. Gottschalk.

A recent study examined gender differences related to migraines. Findings showed that males with migraines generally had less severe attacks and disability. Results also showed men were less likely than women to consult a doctor about their headaches. Men, therefore, were less likely to be diagnosed with migraines.

Like other pain disorders, migraines are invisible. That also makes it more easily subject to stigma and more readily dismissed by men.

Causes of Migraines in Men

Migraines are still somewhat mysterious because physicians aren’t exactly sure what causes migraines.

Conditions that give rise to these terrible headaches for both men and women cover the gamut. These conditions may include:

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Weather
  • Barometric pressure
  • Bright lights
  • Low blood sugar
  • Additives
  • Certain foods and drinks
  • A genetic component may be responsible for causing migraines

Doctors often suggest keeping track of when you get the migraines, conditions that preceded its onset and keeping a food diary. Then look for patterns.

Stress

While both men and women attribute their migraines to stressful situations, men ranked it as the number one trigger.

A cross-sectional study from 2021 examined the sex differences in the prevalence of migraine triggers. Results showed that the top three reported triggers in men were (in this order): stress, bright lights, and sleep deprivation. Women cited menstruation, stress, and bright lights as their top reported triggers.

Physical Exertion

According to the National Headache Foundation, physical exertion can also be responsible for the onset of migraines in men. These activities can range from walking up the stairs to intense exercise like running a marathon.

Dangers of Migraines in Men

Those who experience chronic migraines have a higher risk of developing other health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Harvard Health said men who suffer from migraines have a higher risk of strokes and heart attacks. They are 50% more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease like diabetes and high blood pressure as well.

Migraines and the Military

Dr. Gottshalk says, “There’s been an explosion of interest in concussion and traumatic brain injury in big, strong men in the military and in football.” That has helped open the door to more focus on headaches and migraines.

“One of the most common medical problems for guys returning from war is migraine,” added Dr. Gottshalk. With their warrior mindset, those in the military often don’t want to admit their limitations.

Yet, 36% of veterans who had completed a year-long deployment to Iraq were either diagnosed with or exhibited symptoms of migraine.

In a study about headache management in a veteran population, researchers found that while chronic daily headache/chronic migraine occurs in about 3% of the civilian population, “it has been found to be 20% or higher in the post-9/11 combat veteran population.”

Migraine Treatment

If you deal with migraines, there are various ways in which they can be treated:

  • OTC Medication: The majority of people with migraines (63.7%) use over-the-counter drugs.
  • Prescription Medication: Doctors usually prescribe pain-relieving or preventive medications, depending upon the patient. Prescriptions can also include beta-blockers and antidepressants.
  • Neuromodulation Devices: Neuromodulation devices have also come on the market. These are external devices that send an electrical impulse to stimulate nerves in the head. Nerivio is an affordable option that attaches to your upper arm. It’s an FDA-approved wearable device controlled by a smartphone.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Sleep and exercise and meditation and yoga can help mitigate and prevent migraines.

A Word From Verywell

Migraine is a major disease and affects 39 million people in the US alone. It affects your ability to work and participate with family and friends. Men are encouraged not to isolate or ignore their pain. If your migraines are increasing in frequency or severity, seek medical care and an accurate diagnosis. You deserve a better quality of life.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Migraine.

  2. Scher AI, Wang SJ, Katsarava Z, et al. Epidemiology of migraine in men: Results from the Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO) StudyCephalalgia. 2019;39(2):296-305. doi:10.1177/0333102418786266

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Migraine Headaches.

  4. van Casteren DS, Verhagen IE, Onderwater GL, MaassenVanDenBrink A, Terwindt GM. Sex differences in prevalence of migraine trigger factors: A cross-sectional studyCephalalgia. 2021;41(6):643-648. doi:10.1177/0333102420974362

  5. National Headache Foundation. How Does Migraine Impact Men?.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Feel Your Pain: The health risk of migraines in men.

  7. U.S. Pain Foundation. How Veterans Can Find the Support They Need for Headache and Migraine Diseases.
  8. Williams KA. Headache management in a Veteran population: First considerationsJ Am Assoc Nurse Pract. 2020;32(11):758-763. doi:10.1097/JXX.0000000000000539

  9. Cleveland Clinic. Managing Your Migraine With Dr. Payal Soni.

  10. American Migraine Foundation. Headache Hygiene—What Is It?.

  11. Wells RE, O’Connell N, Pierce CR, et al. Effectiveness of Mindfulness Meditation vs Headache Education for Adults With Migraine: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. Published online December 14, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7090

  12. American Migraine Foundation. What Is Migraine?.

By Barbara Field
Barbara is writer and speak who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.