By Barbara Bronson Gray
THURSDAY, June 26, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- When a spouse, partner or parent has chronic migraines, the whole family suffers, a new study found.
The research discovered that most chronic migraine sufferers report that their severe headaches have a big impact on family relationships, activities and sexual intimacy.
The results were not surprising to lead study author Dawn Buse, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral medicine at Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. "I hear firsthand about the tragic effect that chronic migraine has on every aspect of people's lives, including work and home life."
Still, Buse wanted to quantify the degree to which families were affected.
People who don't experience migraines or have family members with the condition don't understand how it can affect the entire family, Buse said. "It's very important to bring this data to light, to show that chronic migraines are burdensome and difficult, not only for the people who live with it but also for the people they love."
Chronic migraine is defined as having migraine headache 15 or more days a month, according to the researchers. A migraine is a recurrent throbbing headache that typically affects one side of the head and is often accompanied by nausea and disturbed vision. About 38 million people in the United States have migraines, and between 3 and 7 million have chronic migraine, Buse noted.
For the study, the researchers partnered with survey company Research Now to find study participants with migraine. The study included nearly 1,000 people, including 812 women, who met the criteria for chronic headache. Those people and their spouses and children answered web-based questionnaires.
People with chronic migraines said they often feel worried, guilty and sad about how their condition affects those they love, Buse said.
Almost 75 percent of chronic migraine sufferers in the study said they thought they would be better spouses if they didn't have chronic migraines. And almost 60 percent said they felt they would be better parents without the illness.
What's more, most people with migraines said they feel guilty because their headaches make them more easily annoyed or angered. Chronic migraines also made people opt out of activities on a family vacation, or even cancel or miss a vacation.
Overall, people with chronic migraines missed family activities and had reduced quality time with their spouse almost seven days a month, according to the study.
One result raised new questions. The researchers found that women reported lower rates of absenteeism due to chronic migraine than did men.
Buse said women may be less impaired by migraine attacks than are men. Or, it could be that women take on more family responsibility that can't be delegated. "Mothers and wives may simply feel that they cannot miss a family event or drop a responsibility and so they soldier on despite debilitating pain and associated symptoms," she explained.
The research was scheduled for presentation Wednesday at the American Headache Society in Los Angeles. Because the study hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it should be viewed as preliminary.
Dr. Elizabeth Loder, chief of the division of headache and pain at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said that a weakness of the study was that people who are willing to participate in a web survey may not be representative of the total population of migraine sufferers. Loder was not associated with the study.
But Loder said the research nonetheless makes an important contribution toward better understanding the impact of chronic migraine. "This quantifies the burden, and now we're able to attach numbers to things people say happen."
Being able to better define the impact of the condition may make it easier to get the funding, attention and respect that migraines deserve, she added.
Buse hopes the study helps people better understand migraines. "I think the results may surprise some who hold the view that migraine is 'just a headache' and hopefully shed light on the far-reaching effects of this debilitating condition."
The study was funded by Allergan Inc., of Irvine, Calif., which sells Botox (also called onabotulinumtoxinA), a treatment for migraines.