Movie Headaches Vex Real-Life Doctors

Doctors Give on-Screen Headaches a Thumbs-Down Rating for Realism

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 07, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

June 7, 2007 -- Pity the movie character that gets a headache. Chances are, his or her fate is grim, compared with most headaches real people get.

So say three New York University neurologists, including Bert Vargas, MD, who presented their findings about on-screen headaches in Chicago at the American Headache Society's 49th annual scientific meeting.

"People in the movies who suffer from headaches often are portrayed in negative ways," says Vargas in an American Headache Society news release.

"For instance," says Vargas, "they're perceived as crazy, obsessed, possessed by demons ... or even [as] cold-blooded killers."

"We know movies are fantasy, but they are also very effective at formulating public opinion," says Henry. "As the movies often do, they've taken a commonplace medical problem and terrorized it."

Reality Check

The doctors searched an online movie database for movie characters with headache disorders including migraines. They identified 26 characters in 23 films made from 1931 to 2005.

The doctors reviewed those characters' cases and found that on-screen headaches bore little resemblance to reality.

For instance, most real-life headaches aren't caused by cancer or poisoning, and they usually aren't deadly.

But on the silver screen, half of the characters' headaches were caused by conditions such as a tumor, toxins, or even a remote-control device implanted in a character's brain.

Headaches tended to spell doom for movie characters. Nearly half (46%) of characters with headaches died, usually in a spectacular or violent manner, by the end of the film.

The movies also often linked headaches to mental illness in an unrealistic way, the doctors note.

"In reality, there are psychological aspects to headache, such as depression, but in the movies they are too often over-dramatized," says Vargas.

The bottom line: Just like other medical conditions, headaches get more dramatic in Hollywood's hands.

Show Sources

SOURCES: American Headache Society's 49th Annual Scientific Meeting, Chicago, June 7-10, 2007. News release, American Headache Society.

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