How can we best celebrate women? By looking after their health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: Eli Lilly

While celebrating the achievements and contributions of women can be done at any time, springtime marks the time of year when the world formally recognises the role of women in society. Key events like International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day not only shine a light on the successes of women, but also challenge us to acknowledge where progress is still necessary. One critical area that needs to be addressed is women’s health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe, gender inequalities and stereotypes result in women experiencing lower life satisfaction from an early age, disparities in the workforce, and ill health.[1]

One health condition that disproportionately affects women is migraine. Migraine, which affects more than one in ten (11.4%) people in Europe,[2] is three to four times more prevalent in women than men.[3] Often dismissed as just a bad headache, migraine is a complex, debilitating neurological disease that can rob women of their right to fully live, work and contribute to society.

As called for by the European Migraine and Headache Alliance (EMHA), it is clear that more needs to be done to reduce gender stigma, improve diagnosis time, and promote better work-related outcomes for women with migraine.[4] Now is the time to act! As we honour women worldwide, let’s give them the respect they deserve by actively addressing the gender bias in migraine care.

Reducing stigma and taking the disease seriously

Gender stereotypes and misconceptions around how men and women deal with specific symptoms of migraine, along with the fact that the condition is not visible to everyone, all contribute to the stigma women with this condition face.[5] When women are speaking out about their migraine symptoms, people often see them as ‘complaining about just a headache’.[4]

This could lead to the severity of their condition being dismissed. Women may feel that they cannot seek help or speak out, potentially leading to late diagnosis, the wrong diagnosis or none at all.

Need for early diagnosis and better care pathway

Almost 70% of people with migraine do not seek medical advice for their symptoms[6] – many of whom are women. Alongside this, the care pathway for migraine is often riddled with gaps, which can result in delayed or lack of diagnosis, preventing people with migraine from receiving the best possible care.[7]

Research around gender-specific factors can provide better understanding of both biological and socio-cultural aspects of migraine and can therefore inform tailored approaches that can enable women to receive the care they need and deserve.[4]

Improving work related outcomes for women with migraine

For everyone million people in Europe, an estimated 400,000 days of work or school are lost each year due to migraine.[8] Productivity can be significantly impacted if there are not workplace policies that specifically provide support for those with migraine, such as flexible working hours and the availability of darker meeting rooms. According to a survey by the EMHA, 95% of women with migraine feel that they cannot fully perform at their job due to their condition.[9]  Migraine peaks around the years when women are at their most productive and are progressing through their career paths. Migraine can therefore impact their ability to stay in and remain productive at work,[10] potentially leading to further repercussions on businesses, economies, and societies.

Living with migraine can have a considerable impact on women’s ability to be fully productive at work, and fully present at home.[4] By providing support and resources to women as they go through their education and employment, it will not only improve their productivity, but also their chances to embark on better career paths.[4]

We need to act now!

It is time to respect women with migraine! Addressing the gender bias in migraine care and providing a more efficient care pathway will not only promote positive change for women in all stages of their lives, but will also lead to greater benefit for all those suffering from migraine. As highlighted by the EMHA, action must be taken to bring in policies that can address and rectify these challenges:

  • Raise awareness to remove stigma and discrimination surrounding migraine, particularly for women
  • Improve the care pathway to enable early diagnosis and appropriate management
  • Introduce measures that allow workplace and education environments to be adapted to improve outcomes for women with migraine

Read further on the impact of migraine on women:

Credit: Eli Lilly

[1] Where do we stand on women’s health in 2020? World Health Organization Europe. 2020. Available at: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-determinants/gender/news/news/2020/3/where-do-we-stand-on-womens-health-in-2020. Last accessed March 2022.

[2] Woldeamanuel, Y and Cowan, R. Migraine affects 1 in 10 people worldwide featuring recent rise: A systemic review and meta-analysis of community-based studies involving 6 million participants. J Neurol Sci. 2016; 327: 307-315

[3] Al-Hassany L, et al. Giving Researchers a Headache – Sex and Gender Differences in Migraine. Front. Neurol. 2020; 11.

[4] Dumas, A and Ruiz de la Torre, E. Migraine in the EU: bringing women out of the shadows. European Migraine & Headache Alliance. 2021. Available at: https://www.emhalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/Women-M-Policy-Paper-FINAL23MARCH.pdf. Last accessed March 2022.

[5] Parikh, S, Kempner, J and Young, W. Stigma and Migraine: Developing Effective Interventions. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2021; 25(11).

[6] Diamond, M. The impact of migraine on the health and well-being of women. J Women’s Health. 2007; 16(9):1269-1280.

[7] Migraine in the European Union: EMHA’s ‘Access to Care’ survey reveals shocking hurdles for patients to overcome and disparities in the EU. European Migraine & Headache Alliance. 2021. Available at: https://www.emhalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/EMHA_AccessToCare_PressRelease_FINAL-1.pdf. Last accessed March 2022.

[8] Leonardi, M. et al. The value of treatment for brain disorders. European Brain Council. 2017: 101.

[9] Women at Work. European Migraine & Headache Alliance. 2018. Available at: https://www.emhalliance.org/project/women-at-work/. Last accessed: March 2022.

[10] Migraine’s impact on employment in Europe. What can be done to improve work outcomes for people with migraine? Work Foundation 2019. Available at: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/media/lancaster-university/content-assets/documents/lums/work-foundation/Migraines-impact-on-employment-in-Europe-FINAL-pub-vA-accessible.pdf. Last accessed: March 2022.

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