Tough Guys and Pain: Men’s Ongoing Struggle With Migraine Stigma

February 11, 2017

Stifled by Stigma
We have in a previous post talked about migraine stigma.  This post, in particular, will look at how migraine stigma affects men in particular, both internally and socially. To what extent to those with migraine face differential treatment from those around them, and if so, how does this treatment due to migraine stigma become internalized? What makes migraine as a health issue difficult to treat is its subjectivity. Migraine stigma is a huge part of the problem. People with chronic migraine may be subject to views that they’re exaggerating,  or even faking,  their symptoms to gain attention, avoid work, get out of social commitments, and so on.  Unfortunately, while this is a potential reaction for all with chronic migraine, migraine stigma seems even more pertinent with men, who still face undercurrents that they are to not to express pain, let it stop them, or even talk about it.

What’s tragic is how migraine stigma affects and then is implicitly accepted, by the sufferers themselves. They begin to doubt their own experience of their pain  and may start to see themselves as a burden to others. This negative influence both reinforces feelings of shame, and may even create more triggers for migraine, furthering them from the treatment they need. Though not exclusively so, this problem is certainly true for men. Why?

Dr. Joanna Kempner, professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers,  recently led a team of neurologists to study chronic migraine stigma among both genders. They used 305 patients being treated for episodic migraines, chronic migraines, or epilepsy as their participants. Each were asked to rate how stigmatized they felt because of their condition.

The study was published this week in PLoS One, after the data from the study – from 2009-201, conducted at the Jefferson Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in Philadelphia.  – was analyzed.  The research was the most exhaustive study on migraine stigma to date.

The “Frail” Woman
“The enduring image of the typical migraine patient is a white, middle-class woman who just isn’t good at handling stress…She is seen as neurotic and weak, a stigma that’s been hard to change.” If this is the case for women, then, what if that sufferer happens to be male?

Guys Need to “Man Up”
In the 58th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society, a similar focus on migraine stigma and gender was the focus. The study “Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO)” specifically analyzed if gender differences had an effect on how those with migraine presented themselves to each other, and how they themselves coped with their chronic migraine.

The results of the meeting found men were more likely to “internalize” assumptions about their condition – rather than express it to others –  and less likely to report or seek treatment for it.

The meeting also discussed the common misconception that migraine is a “women’s issue.” Since men were less likely to report their symptoms to seek out preventative strategies from medical professionals, the statistical data may not be an accurate reflection of the male-female ratio. Further, the stigma surrounding migraine was a perception that migraine was primarily a feminine issue. This implied that men were both a) less likely to be diagnosed with the condition and b) take the necessary medications due to migraine stigma.

A Look at Demographics
Looking at the current demographics seems to bear out that chronic migraine does occur more often in women. Let’s take a quick look at the numbers, as reported by the Migraine Research Foundation:

  • 38 Million: That’s the number of men, women, and children in the US who have reported migraine. It’s likely that most anyone in the country either has or knows someone who suffers from this condition.
  • 18% vs. 6%: Theses are the percentages of women versus men, respectively, who have been diagnosed with migraine.There are some biological gender differences, such as hormonal changes, that support the percentages. 
  • 4%: The percentage of those with migraine who consult headache and pain specialists. The percentage is quite low. Yet an argument could be made that migraine stigma plays a part here.

Society and Its Internal Effects
Though the best data we now have is that the prevalence of migraine is higher in women, it is becoming more clear that migraine affects men, too, and perhaps at rates larger than the statistics bear out. Researchers are making such an argument: that ongoing stereotypes between genders are still part of our society and perpetuate migraine stigma. Simply put, migraine stigma may be a remnant of age-old assumptions that are still at play today: women are the “weaker” sex, and therefore prone to either “emotional dramatics” or a possess a lower tolerance for pain. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be the “tougher” sex, who see pain as something that one “mans up” and deals with stoically. Men may either feel this way themselves, or feel the societal pressure to act thus, and may be prone to “play down” pain by internalizing it. As they often say in sports: just “walk it off,” or “play through the pain.”

No Need to be a Tough Guy With Chronic Migraine
Since society still seems to treat men and women differently, the ways men and women care for themselves can also be divergent. Addressing migraine stigma is not easy—there are numerous factors to untangle—but it’s important to realize each individual has the power to make their own choices, and one needs to receive the treatment they need. You don’t need to live with pain, and if you have chronic migraine, migraine stigma shouldn’t be a factor in seeking help.

There are a number of treatments available for those with chronic migraine. Call the Migraine Treatment Centers of America at (855) 300-6822 to learn about some of the most advanced and effective options out there.


  1. Lally-Rutgers, Robin. ‘People with Migraines Report Social Stigma’. January 24, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2016.
  2. Taylor, Andrea. ‘Migraine Stigma May Prevent Proper Diagnosis and Treatment in Men’. June 9, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2016.
  3. Saper, Joel and Medical Advisory Board Chair. ‘Migraine Facts’. 2016. Accessed December 14, 2016.


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