Is migraine pain comparable to torture?

by Diana E. Lee

Last year, People published an interview with Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona.

She revealed she has dealt with excruciating migraine attacks for about 15 years, including during her husband’s presidential campaign. Though she has never discussed them publicly before, she has chosen to talk about her situation now to help bring awareness to this disabling condition and all the people going through what she has been through. She presented the keynote speech at the International Headache Society meeting in Philadelphia.

The interview generated unexpected controversy because Cindy also said the best way she could describe the pain of her migraines to her husband was to compare it to the torture he suffered as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam Conflict.

Almost as soon as the article was published the Web exploded with people criticizing Cindy for having the audacity to compare her migraines to the torture her husband experienced. I will admit I felt squeamish about the comparison when I first read it.

Who am I to compare my suffering with that of a brave American Naval hero who spent five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnam prison camp after he was shot down over Hanoi? The man was interrogated, denied medical treatment, starved and subjected to two years of solitary confinement.

Yet, next to Senator McCain, who knows the horror of what he went through better than his wife? While it is true they were not married to each other at that time, any of us who are married know that we share things with our spouses we can’t share with anyone else. I have to imagine this might be true of their relationship. Therefore I find it difficult to believe Cindy would minimize the significance of his suffering by comparing the pain of a migraine attack to it if she could think of any other reasonable comparison to make.

Admittedly, it’s not surprising that comparing a health problem to the torture experienced by a POW quickly drew controversy. However, I think this highlights the vast public misunderstanding surrounding migraine disease and it’s debilitating effects. Yes, some people rarely have migraine attacks, have access to good treatment medications and find their attacks relatively easy to treat with those medications.

Unfortunately, many people don’t know they are experiencing migraine attacks, don’t know about or have access to the best treatment medications, can’t use such medications or have so many attacks treatment alone is insufficient. Some people who need preventative medications or treatments for migraine disease find an acceptable option and move on with their lives. For others of us, most of my readers and myself among them, nothing we try helps at all and we suffer tremendously and have our lives slowly stripped away from us.

Therefore I certainly can’t fault Cindy for trying to bring awareness to migraine disease through her fame and notoriety regardless of whether she says something controversial.

Diana E. Lee is a chronic migraine patient who blogs at Somebody Heal Me.

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  • Xavier Tello, MD

    I would certainly NEVER compare my migraine pain with any kind of physical / psychological torture that any soldier or prisoner could suffer, BUT I understand Mrs McCain and Dr. Lee’s point.
    Migraine is beyond pain. Is a made-in-hell complex state which mixes headache with dizziness, nausea, auditive and visual hallucinations, as well as practical incapacity for working or even relate to your loved ones, sometimes for days.
    Pain state is a very hard medical subject to measure or quantify; and at some point the actual psychological and emotional sequels are key to qualify its dimension; thus, subjectively comparing somehow some types of migraine to torture would not be necessarily exaggerated.

  • just a patient

    I grew up with a parent who had debilitating migraines. Our lives revolved around whether or not he would be able to get out of bed on a given day (average was a migraine every 3 days, with the really bad ones ever 9 to 12 days). He was/is self-employed in agriculture, so there were many days that he got on a tractor with a bucket next to him to vomit into, because the wheat doesn’t care if you’re sick, it still has to be planted and harvested. He missed more of my school events than I can count, because he would be sick. At his worst, he was taking 4 cafergot at a time to attempt to battle a headache.

    About 15 years ago, he found a physician who had a different theory on migraines, that they were in some way an allergic response to an environmental trigger. He eliminated a large number of foods from his diet, and the headaches mostly went away. He’s down to about 1 every 21 days, which can be dealt with by taking a single pill.

    I inherited the migraines from him. Mine aren’t as debilitating as his, for the most part. For the average one that comes every 6 weeks or so, a double-dose of naproxen chased with a large amount of caffiene will do it. For the bad ones, where nothing stays in my stomach for more than a few minutes, it means a trip to the doctor and a shot with a drug cocktail that will knock me out for about 6 hours. There have been 3 of those in 15 years.

    My mom & my husband agree that the closest someone who doesn’t suffer from them can come to understanding them is to live with, care for and love someone who does. The pain and nausea are only the starting points. The real humiliation is the reality that caring for yourself in that situation is next to impossible.

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