Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health

Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health

by Joanna Kempner


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Migraine is a major public health issue, costing the US economy, by one recent estimate, at least $32 billion per year—$17 billion in treatment and $15 billion in missed work. Its personal toll is apparent to anyone who has the disorder—an estimated ten percent of the world’s population.

In Not Tonight, Joanna Kempner examines why migraine, one of the most common, disabling, and painful disorders, is nonetheless frequently dismissed, ignored, and delegitimized. She argues that this general dismissal of migraine can be traced back to the gendered social values embedded in the way we talk about, understand, and make policies for people in pain. Because the symptoms that accompany headache disorders—like head pain, visual auras, and sensitivity to sound—lack an objective marker of distress that can confirm their existence, doctors rely on the perceived moral character of their patients to gauge how serious their complaints are. Kempner shows how this problem plays out in the history of migraine, from nineteenth-century formulations of migraine as a disorder of upper-class intellectual men and hysterical women to the influential concept of “migraine personality” in the 1940s, in which women with migraine were described as uptight neurotics who withheld sex, to contemporary depictions of people with highly sensitive “migraine brains.” Not Tonight casts new light on how cultural beliefs about gender, pain, and the distinction between mind and body influence not only whose suffering we legitimate, but which remedies are marketed, how medicine is practiced, and how knowledge about disease is produced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226179155
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/08/2014
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 945,066
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Joanna Kempner is assistant professor of sociology and an affiliate of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

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Not Tonight

Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health

By Joanna Kempner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17929-2


All in Her Mind

Migraine blurs the boundaries between mind and body in complicated ways. Take the story of Civil War Union general Ulysses S. Grant. On the evening of April 8, 1865, Grant's army had finally cornered Robert E. Lee's now exhausted Confederate army in Appomattox, Virginia. But Grant felt terrible. General Lee refused to surrender, and Grant was suffering from a severe "sick headache"—a condition that shares much in common with today's migraine.

Grant got little rest as the armies settled down for the night. "I spent the night," he wrote, "in bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning." Grant felt much the same the next day until he received a letter with better news: Lee had changed his mind. "When the officer reached me, I was still suffering from the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured." With his headache gone, Grant met with Lee and negotiated a peace that would end the bloody war.

Grant's vanishing headache dramatically illustrates the complicated interrelationship between mind and body in headache disorders. Anxiety or stress might exacerbate an underlying tendency to get migraine, but then, as in Grant's experience, a turn of mood can abort even the worst attack. In contrast, for many people, migraine only comes during moments of relaxation. (Doctors used to call this phenomenon "weekend headaches" or "let-down migraines.") Or migraines stay away during extreme stress, only to return in response to everyday aggravations. Joan Didion tries to explain these contradictions in her own migraines: "Tell me that my house is burned down, my husband has left me, that there is gunfighting in the streets and panic in the banks, and I will not respond by getting a headache. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited."

The odd relationship between emotions and the onset and frequency of migraine is just one facet of how mind and body interact in migraine. The very experience of migraine can sometimes feel like a voyage to the fringes of the mental. This is especially true of migraine aura, which brings with it a diverse set of symptoms, some of which are surreal (hallucinations of sight, sound, and smell) and some of which are affective (elation, irritability, anxiety, or overactivity). Novelist Siri Hustvedt describes her auras as a "lunatic borderland" that provide pleasure, inspiration, and entertainment. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has mused that the fortification patterns he sees during visual aura might connect him to universal archetypes of human experience, noting that these patterns are the same as those used in the Alhambra, Zapotec architecture, bark paintings of Australian Aboriginal artists, and Swazi basketry. He suggests that the universality of these patterns might be rooted in the neuronal structure of humanity's shared visual cortex, but the reader can't miss the spiritual subtext of his essay. Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, envisions aura as magical and horrible. People in the headache community often say that his masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland, was inspired by his own experience with migraine aura. Some people with migraine, for example, experience the sensation of having body parts much larger or smaller than they actually are. Alice frequently feels the same way. After drinking the contents of a strange bottle, she says: "I must be shutting up like a telescope. And so it was indeed: She was now only 10 inches high."

Not everyone finds these perceptual shifts as preternaturally romantic as Sacks, Hustvedt, and Carroll. An intense feeling of dread can also precede migraine attacks. Not infrequently, people with migraine lose fundamental language skills just prior to or during an attack. And treatment can complicate matters, as many medications used in the prevention and treatment of migraine have cognitive side effects including depression, difficulty concentrating, and forgetting words.

These examples demonstrate why Oliver Sacks has argued that migraine ought to be seen as a prime example of the "absolute continuity of mind and body." Over the centuries, physicians have placed migraine in various positions along the mind/body spectrum. Headache experts currently consider migraine a somatic disorder rooted in the brain. But this is a break from the past. Up until thirty years ago, doctors primarily viewed migraine as having both a psychological and a somatic basis. In what follows, I trace these historical understandings of migraine from the nineteenth-century understanding of migraine as a disorder of upper-class intellectuals, to the influential concept of the "migraine personality" in mid-twentieth-century America, and finally to contemporary theories of comorbidity.

Each of these formulations describes the person with migraine as having particular qualities—that is, a distinctive moral character. And since moral descriptors tend to have gendered components, so do historical explanations of migraine. Of course, it is fair to say that any historical narrative of medicine will dredge up discourses that sound explicitly sexist by today's standards. As cultural theorist Paula Treichler points out, analyses that accuse medicine of sexism tell us little that we don't already know. Instead, she recommends analyses that interrogate how these representations of disease are "produced, disseminated, understood, and put to use" because they can help us contextualize how contemporary frameworks for understanding headache disorders continue to perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender. In the account that follows, I pay close attention to how, at each historical turn, biomedical discourses come to enact and reinforce cultural narratives about gender, class, and pain via the encoded inclusion of moral character. After all, the credibility and the legitimacy of a disorder—and how much we, as a society, choose to invest in its treatment—is intimately tied to how we perceive the moral character of the patient.

Victorians and the Nervous Temperament

In Western medicine, headache disorders have long been understood as complaints that are rooted in the body but that maintain intimate relationships with emotions. Even as far back as Plato's Charmides, Socrates refuses to give the hero headache medicine till first he had eased his troubled mind; body and soul, he said, must be cured together, as head and eyes. Galen, whose theory of "hemicrania" dominated medicine until the seventeenth century, speculated "certain natures ... may end up suffering from headache if they lead an intemperate life."

This association between headache and emotions persisted even as more modern physicians began to favor biological explanations of head pain. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Willis (1621–1675), the "father of modern neurology," wrote about migraine as a "nervous" disorder, locating the pain in the physiological structures of the brain. Yet despite this fundamental shift in how migraine physiology was understood, Willis warned that treatment of migraine in a patient would be "more difficult, if hypochondriacal, or hysterick." Samuel Tissot's (1728–1797) highly influential eighteenth-century treatise on migraine attributed the disorder to disturbed function of the stomach, but argued that this disturbance could be created by emotional and intellectual factors: James Mease (1771–1846), writing in 1832, agreed that the stomach was fundamental to understanding the disorder, but cautioned, "The passions of the mind must be kept under with especial care. Every mental irritation will add strength to the disease, and retard the wholesome operation of the remedies prescribed for its cure."

References to mind and body, like the ones made by Willis, Tissot and Mease, were common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medicine. Victorian doctors, especially, made few distinctions between mind and body; it was simply assumed that emotions, mental impatience, lifestyle, and passions could affect, and even bring on, all sorts of disease. Because distinctions between mind and body were so rarely made, all of nineteenth-century medicine could profitably be described as psychosomatic.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the development of increasingly sophisticated theories about the physiological mechanisms of migraine. Physicians began to debate whether migraine should be attributed to disruptions in the nervous system or to dilation and constriction of the cranial vessels. But they agreed on one thing: the person with migraine had a "nervous temperament" that lent him an unusual intelligence, an active imagination, and a susceptibility to illness. This sensitive nervous structure produced a moral character that could be inherited from one's family or cultivated through intense study. Nevertheless, the temperament was understood as an organic (somatic) phenomenon. How might this work?

Physician John Symonds (1807–1881) laid out a new framework for how a nervous temperament could exacerbate physical ills. "Say that a wasp has stung the dorsum of the foot," explained Symonds in an 1848 lecture on migraine. "The pain may soon extend to the whole foot, or even the whole limb, without any corresponding extension of the local irritation caused by the wasp poison." His point being that, in a normal person, pain can and does travel "sympathetically" away from its original source. But the nervous system of a "nervous" person is organized differently: "In different subjects there is a vast difference in the readiness with which these communications are made. Persons are called irritable, nervous, susceptible, hysterical, when the proclivities to such communication is very marked." The nervous temperament, Symonds continued, did not affect all sectors of society equally. Rather, it tended to afflict "persons of very lively emotions and delicate sensitivity, easily perturbed mind, easily put off their sleep, [and] those who have the aesthetical and imaginative elements highly developed. It is also the frequent accompaniment and curse of high intellectual endowments."

Symonds was repeating an old and well-accepted theory of nervous disease that had circulated for over one hundred years. In 1733, George Cheyne (1671–1743), a fashionable Scottish doctor in London at the time, wrote a widely read book, The English Malady, that explained poor health via degradation of the nervous system. Nerve strength guaranteed health. Nerves that were "too lax, feeble and unelastik" bred pathology and made one susceptible to environmental changes. For example, people with weak nerves felt "too much Pain and Uneasiness from cold or frosty Weather" and "too great a Degree of Sensibility or Easiness of being acted upon by external objects." He blamed a combination of a heavy, unhealthy English diet; sedentary professions; and the hectic, noisy, and polluted London lifestyle for further burdening the weak nervous system.

Cheyne did not, however, see weak nerves as entirely unhealthy. The thinner and more fragile the nerve, the more quickly it could transmit a quality called "sense." "Sensibility" conveyed aesthetic, intellectual, and social refinement, made one a "quick Thinker," and provided the "most lively imagination." Talented people were born with "organs finer, quicker, more agile, and sensible, and perhaps more numerous than others." In contrast, "brute Animals have few or none, at least none that belong to Reflection; Vegetables certainly none at all." Sensibility could be cultivated, but was also seen to be biologically rooted and inborn, determined directly by the exquisiteness and delicacy of one's nerves. It was simply an unfortunate irony that refinement of nerves coupled so tightly with susceptibility to illness. People of good breeding, high sensibility, and excellent moral character were expected to come down with nervous disorders, like hysteria, hypochondria, or the "Vapours."

Cheyne's description of the nervous system and its disorders mirrored the clearly demarcated race and class boundaries of the time: the upper class with their weak nerves and sharp senses were biologically built for sedentary and intellectual professions, whereas the working class's (and African's) robust nerves and dull senses had the perfect build and aptitude for physical labor. But this logic presented a puzzle when it came to women, as they suffered from hysteria and other nervous disorders with greater frequency than men, but were not considered intellectually superior beings. Cheyne's contemporary, Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733), laid out this problem in A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases: "Studying and intense thinking are not to be alledg'd as a Cause in Women, whom we know (at least for the generality of them) to be so little guilty of it; and yet the Number of hysterick Women far exceeds that of hypochondriack Men." The answer, Cheyne argued, lay in their "Deficiency of the Spirits." Women were simply born with weaker, finer, and more delicate nerves than men and, therefore, were not "made capable of running into the same Indiscretions or Excess of Sensual Pleasures" as were those born with "strong Fibres or Robust Constitutions."

That women's "delicacy" (in personality, tastes, and sensibility) was the result of their "delicate" nervous systems became firmly entrenched in both scientific and popular imagination. This "nervous temperament" will be immediately familiar to those who have read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, many of which valorized sensibility and the nervous temperament. For example, Jane Austen's Marianne Dashwood, the heroine in Sense and Sensibility, seeks a life filled with aesthetic pleasures and high culture. It is no coincidence that she is also of delicate constitution, having nearly died after walking in a torrential downpour. Her sensitive nervous system allows for superior tastes and intellect, but leaves her flailing with a weak constitution.

John Symonds's 1848 lecture about the relationship between migraine and nervous temperament shared these gender and class assumptions. But he added a new dimension: "Such persons may also feel pains which have taken their origin from mere ideas." And, thus, Symonds became the first—but certainly not the last—headache doctor to suggest in print that head pain might be caused entirely by suggestion. Or to phrase his contribution more accurately, suggestion could only bring on disease in a person whose body had already been weakened by "nervous temperament."

The Lingering Nervous Temperament

Not long after Symonds's lecture, two competing theories of the biological basis of migraine emerged, each with long-lasting consequences. Both theories identified migraine as biological, albeit positing different underlying mechanisms. Despite their biological orientation, however, both theories made ample use of highly gendered assumptions related to moral character. The nervous temperament remained a salient feature of migraine in the late nineteenth century.

The first theory posited that symptoms of migraine were due to vascular changes in cranial vessels. This was an ancient idea: physicians had implicated the vascular system in migraine since at least the seventeenth century. But in 1859, German physician Emil Du Bois Reymond (1818–1896) renewed these theories with his observation that his own face paled during migraine attacks—the cause, then, must be the vasoconstriction of cranial vessels. In contrast, his compatriot, Möllendorf, noted in 1867, that his own face, as well as those of his patients, flushed during migraine attacks. Migraine, then, must be caused by either the expansion or dilation of cranial vessels. London medical lecturer Peter Wallwork Latham combined these two theories in 1873, arguing that Reymond and Möllendorf were both right. The migraine began with vasoconstriction, which would explain the visual and emotional symptoms preceding headache. But then the vasculature, exhausted by constriction, would over-dilate, causing the pain of migraine. He argued that his model could explain the varied expression of migraine symptoms:

It is well known that the vision is disturbed by a diminished supply of blood to the brain—as, for instance, in the faintness, which is induced by haemorrhage. The patients become giddy; everything appears dark before them; perhaps they have, moreover, flashes of light before their eyes, or noises in their ears, and then become insensible, and sink to the ground. How often do we hear from persons who are dying from asthenia such expressions as the following? "How dark the room is; "I can't see"; "open the shutters"; telling us too plainly that the heart is powerless to drive the blood onward to the brain.


Excerpted from Not Tonight by Joanna Kempner. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. All in Her Mind
Chapter 2. All in Her Brain
Chapter 3. Embracing the Migraine Brain
Chapter 4. Gendering the Migraine Market
Chapter 5. Men in Pain

Appendix A. International Classification of Headache Disorders
Appendix B. Methods

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