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Hiding Migraine Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Manuel Penton, M.D.
Updated on September 14, 2022

Studies indicate that as many as 62 percent of people with migraine headaches downplay their symptoms in front of schoolmates or co-workers. “I’m always putting on a smile and pretending to be OK to please other people,” wrote one MyMigraineTeam member. “I overdo it and end up ill in bed for days, but that’s life.”

There are many reasons people try to keep migraine symptoms a secret. Perhaps you worry your boss will question your capabilities or family members will become overly concerned. There’s also a fear that others won’t understand that migraine attacks are different from other types of headaches or will judge you unfairly for not feeling your best.

“Acting classes as a child were an excellent investment,” one member wrote. “I'm conditioned to hide migraines and overcompensate because I got in trouble as a kid if I displayed any signs of being ill or hurting.” Another said, “Because I don’t complain about being in pain, people don’t think I’m in pain. But I am always in pain. I don’t moan. I just get on with it.”

Read on for information about when to share your migraine symptoms and how others handle this situation.

Keeping Migraines a Secret at Work

The desire to hide any perceived weakness at work is understandable. You may worry that you can’t show your true self without risking your job security or opportunities for advancement. You may feel especially cautious if you’re at a new job or don’t know your co-workers well.

However, it’s not always possible to hide symptoms of migraine attacks at work, even if you want to. One MyMigraineTeam member described dealing with the added pressure of keeping migraine head pain and nausea a secret from co-workers: “Being sick to my stomach at work is very hard on me. I’m running to the bathroom, and hopefully making it in time. It’s very hard to hide. Co-workers accuse me of making myself sick. They think I don't carry my workload as the others do. I feel like I’m being watched all the time.”

Another member eventually realized that a lack of support at work wasn’t worth the toll it was taking on their mental health and quality of life. “I tried to be Wonder Woman,” they wrote. “Going to work with migraines, teaching elementary students of various grades with special needs. I’d make a schedule of going to the bathroom to puke and not complain because I knew it wasn’t worth it. Finally, I just said, ‘The heck with this!’”

Working in an unsupportive work environment isn’t good for anyone. Sometimes, it takes a health condition like migraine to realize it’s time to move on.

Hiding Migraine Symptoms From Family and Friends

Chronic migraine sufferers often feel misunderstood. In one study, 91 percent of people with migraine said people without the condition don’t realize how severe the symptoms are. This lack of awareness and understanding can lead to unintended consequences, like hurt feelings.

One MyMigraineTeam member said they don’t want to disappoint loved ones, especially with last-minute plan changes. “I hate having to tell my friends and family I can't do something because I'm feeling sick. Even when you plan something in the future, you never know if you will have a good day or a migraine attack. If it's a bad day, you have to suffer through it. Everyone else is enjoying themselves, and you’re waiting for it to end.”

Another said they would rather not have to explain their symptoms, but keeping severe migraines a secret can backfire. “It's better to hide it sometimes,” they wrote. “I hide the pain almost always. Then when it gets worse, people look at me like I am faking it. There's no winning.”

Others hide their migraine symptoms because they don’t want to be viewed differently. Even though it’s difficult, they’d rather put up a front to face the world.

“Having spent most of my life consistently dealing with migraines, I can share that I often spend time in front of the mirror before I leave the house,” another member wrote. “I’m not applying a lot of makeup but just trying to look like I’m OK. I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Oh, you look so nice.’ And yet I feel so awful.”

Letting Others Know About Your Migraines

Talking about your migraine symptoms can take some of the stress away from trying to hide. Although you may choose to be selective about who you tell, there are potential benefits to letting others in.

For example, telling your co-workers that you need to dim bright lights or grab an over-the-counter pain relief medicine on your break will make more sense if they know about your migraine triggers. You’ll likely get more support and avoid misunderstandings when others know why you’re choosing to work in a dark room or wear earplugs. You may find it’s better to tell people what’s happening instead of letting them make assumptions, speculate, and gossip.

Additionally, sharing your symptoms could open the door for others to share. It’s important to remember that about 15 percent of Americans experience migraines. You never know if a co-worker is dealing with migraine, tension headaches, cluster headaches, or a family history of severe headaches. Chances are if they don’t have migraines, they have a relative or friend who does.

No one wants to be a complainer, but it’s possible to let others know about your migraine symptoms without being overly negative. You can keep the conversation short while raising awareness about different types of migraine.

If you have questions about how to discuss your migraine symptoms with others, talk to your neurologist. They may have tips that can help you share this information and find more support in your life.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMigraineTeam is the social network for people with migraine and their loved ones. On MyMigraineTeam, more than 78,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with migraines.

How do you explain migraine attacks to the people in your life? Do you try to keep your migraine symptoms a secret, or do you share with a select group of people? Describe your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on September 14, 2022
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Manuel Penton, M.D. is a medical editor at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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