We Need to Talk About the Syntax of Migraine

​I bet you did not think there would be a grammar lesson in migraine, and there was a point in my life I would agree. Is it ironic I majored in English?

On June 5th, 2016, Migraine.com published an article titled “Fighting for Migraine – With Words” written by Dr. William B. Young. He is a neurologist who specializes in headache medicine. Now, before we go any farther, I want to clarify something very important that speaks to the complexity of migraine as a neurological disease. Migraine is made up of a variation of neurological symptoms. Head pain is one stage of a four-stage attack, making it a symptom. When I speak to others who do not understand migraine as a complex neurological disease, I often say head pain or the headache associated with migraine is a symptom of an attack, but it is not and should never be used as a synonym for the word migraine.

To date, I think Dr. Young’s message was one of the most important distinctions made when trying to bring clarity to migraine. I know there is still work to be done. I hope I can teach you the value of the syntax used when talking about migraine, because let’s face it: if we are ever going to understand migraine, we need to unify the language used to talk about it.

When talking about migraine, I never say I have migraines. Did you do a double-take, wondering if I wrote the same word twice? Until very recently, migraine has been seen as a plural illness – “migraines.” There are two problems with this. First, Dr. Young identifies, for one, to say they have migraines means they have a few of them. By stating, “I have migraines,” I am stating, “Yes, I have migraine, but it’s not really something that impacts me much at all.” It is not a chronic ongoing illness. For an individual diagnosed with chronic or episodic migraine, this is not the proper way to talk about it.

Imagine it like this: An individual diagnosed with asthma does not have asthmas. This means I have migraine, and migraine is a chronic illness. I cannot have duplicates of the same illness.

So, when one experiences symptoms of migraine, what do we say? An individual is diagnosed with migraine, and when they experience symptoms of migraine they have a migraine attack. The individual is not having a headache, and they are certainly not having a migraine headache. The complex range of symptoms that make up a migraine attack make it an attack on the nervous system. It would not be fully accurate to say a migraine attack is only a headache, or “just” a migraine.

One is left wondering, what is the migraine experience? ​Migraine consists of a complex range of symptoms that differ from person to person and attack to attack. These symptoms are what make up a migraine attack. Head pain may be and most likely will be a part of the symptoms that occur during the attack. If headache is referred to as part of migraine, it is a symptom – not the disease. Headache is a symptom of migraine, but it isn’t and will never be a synonym to replace a migraine attack.  ​

Now, I may spark some debate here, but I am an individual diagnosed with migraine. I am not a migraineur. What is wrong with the word “migraineur?” Joanna Kempner, the author of “Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health,” explained the issue of the translation of migraineur during her presentation at the 2017 Migraine World Summit. She stated, “The ‘-eur’ at the end of a word in French means ‘to do.'” The translation is “actively doing migraine.” I do not do migraine, I can’t do migraine. In my opinion, I feel like “migraining” is seen like a hobby. I am left saying, “No wonder no one takes it seriously.”

I also do not identify as a migraine sufferer. Migraine is bad, but it should not be a defining characteristic of my life. Of course, this is my opinion. As far as I am concerned, migraine is a diagnosis I have, but it is not what I am. I do not introduce myself by saying I am a graduate student, I am from New York and I’m a migraineur. If I talk about the impact of migraine on my life, I say I am diagnosed with migraine, and I experience migraine attacks, but I am always a person before my diagnosis. ​

There is truly no one word that can sum up the experience of the impact of migraine. Headache is a minuscule part of migraine. If we want to eliminate current stigmas surrounding migraine, we must start by looking at the language we use to talk about it. We must start by accepting a range of words to describe a widely neurological experience we are just starting to understand.

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