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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