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Michele Bachmann’s migraines: Just how incapacitating are they?

Unnamed advisers said Rep. Michele Bachmann has been hospitalized at least three times for migraines.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Unnamed advisers said Rep. Michele Bachmann has been hospitalized at least three times for migraines.

Rep. Michele Bachmann acknowledged earlier this week that she suffers from chronic migraine headaches, but said they would not interfere with her ability to serve as president should she be elected.

“Like nearly 30 million other Americans, I experience migraines that are easily controlled with medication,” she said in a statement released Tuesday. “… I have prescription medication that I take whenever symptoms arise and they keep the migraines under control. Let me be abundantly clear — my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines and will not affect my ability to serve as Commander in Chief.”

Bachmann’s migraines jumped into the news on Monday night, when The Daily Caller, a conservative online publication, released an article in which unnamed advisers said that the congresswoman experiences an average of one debilitating migraine a week. They also said she has been hospitalized at least three times for the condition.

On Wednesday, another online publication, Politico, said it had confirmed several of the incapacitating migraine incidents reported in the Daily Caller, including three in 2010 that caused Bachmann to either miss House votes and/or seek urgent medical care.

Also on Wednesday, Dr. Lucas Bachmann, the congresswoman’s son and a medical resident at the University of Connecticut, told the New York Times that his mother has been having migraines for about 15 years and has sought emergency medical treatment in urgent-care centers at least twice while traveling. He also said she takes three drugs for the condition — two when symptoms occur (to reduce pressure in the brain and to reduce nausea) and one as a prophylactic.

“She would not in any respect meet the definition for not having capacity in one of these episodes,” he told the Times. “She is probably not going to run a mile, but in terms of being able to engage, she can comprehend and assess information — without a doubt.”

Meanwhile, Bachmann released a doctor’s letter about her migraines.

A common condition
Just how incapacitating are migraines? And can they be controlled with treatment? I posed those and other questions about migraines to Dr. Miles Belgrade, a neurologist and medical director of the Fairview Pain Management Center in Minneapolis.

Dr. Miles Belgrade
Dr. Miles Belgrade

Migraines — intensely throbbing and pulsing headaches that are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting or extreme sensitivity to light, sound and touch — are very common, he told me. About 10 percent of men and about 20 percent of women have them.

“We used to think it was a blood-vessel problem, but now we know it’s a disorder of the nervous system,” Belgrade said. Just what causes a migraine headache is not well understood, but scientists do know that these headaches start with an alteration in the central nervous system that then sets off a cascade of other neurological events, including the release of inflammatory chemicals in the brain.

“Those chemicals sensitize the nerves so they respond to less and less of a stimulus,” explained Belgrade. “That’s why everything seems stronger: Sound seems louder, light seems brighter and touch feels more intense.” 

People with migraines often report that their blood pulses with more force during the headache, but actually, said Belgrade, they are just feeling the normal pulsing of blood vessels. “It just seems more intense because everything is set at a more intense level,” he said.

Many triggers
Migraines can come on for seemingly no reason at all, but they can also be triggered by environmental factors, including stress, physical exertion, changes in sleep patterns, and certain foods, especially red wine, cheeses and other foods containing a natural chemical called tyramine

Fluctuating hormones, particularly in women, have also been identified as a possible migraine trigger. And, indeed, about one third of women lose their migraines after menopause, said Belgrade. But another third, he quickly added, report that their headaches worsen after they stop menstruating.

Those statistics haven’t stopped some women from undergoing hysterectomies to get rid of their migraines. “But it doesn’t always work,” said Belgrade.

And what about high-heel shoes, which Bachmann blames for her migraines, according to the anonymous sources in the Daily Caller article? That idea is not as far-fetched as it sound, said Belgrade. Muscular factors can play a role in headaches, he explained, and therefore “anything that affects muscle balance could affect migraines. So if you’re wearing high heels, that factor might affect the muscles of your back … and that might influence head and neck pain.”

From bothersome to devastating
“Migraines can be very disabling,” said Belgrade. “They’re painful. Sometimes people just have to hole up, pull the shades, turn off the lights, and let the worst pass.”

But the level of migraine-associated pain — and disability — varies from person to person. “[Migraines] run the entire gamut,” said Belgrade, “from hardly bothersome at all to completely devastating, where you have people who are basically nonfunctioning. But that end of the spectrum is very rare.”

Treatments can help, most notably drugs known as triptans. “They help modulate a chemical called serotonin in the central nervous system,” said Belgrade, “and prevent or abort that cascade of events that takes place — as long as you catch it early enough.” 

Botox — the muscle relaxer used to smooth out forehead wrinkles — is also being successfully used to treat migraines. There are nondrug treatments as well, including biofeedback and acupuncture.

But not everybody responds to these treatments. “There are plenty of cases of intractable migraine,” said Belgrade.

A problem for a president?
So, could chronic migraines keep someone in a high-powered position from successfully fulfilling their job responsibilities?

“I think it might for some,” said Belgrade, “but for many people with migraine, [the condition] is manageable and doesn’t stop them from doing their job, even it’s a high-performance-type job.”

As for whether someone with chronic migraines could be president, Belgrade believes it’s likely that that’s already happened. “If we have 42 presidents, probably more than 10 percent of them had migraines,” he said, “because migrainers are often hard-driven people.”

“It’s just that common,” he added.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 07/21/2011 - 10:05 am.

    From the descriptions, I’d say that MB’s migraine condition is a bit worse than mine. (I take a tryptan when needed, but nothing preventative, aside from giving up caffeine.) One of my sisters has taken preventative meds and is the CFO of a hospital.

    Much as I dislike MB’s politics, there’s no reason to discount her for her migraines. She wouldn’t have gotten to where she is if they in any way prevented her from doing her job.

    Although I have to say, on the high heel question… Michele, if you know they cause you this type of pain, stop wearing them!

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/21/2011 - 10:46 am.

    She says: …Let me be abundantly clear — my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines…

    The Politico article says:


    In March 2006, migraines Bachmann suffered in the aftermath of an appendectomy prolonged her recovery from surgery, causing her to suspend her campaign and miss a week of work in the Minnesota state Senate, where she served at the time.

    A migraine attack in May 2010 forced Bachmann to retreat to her congressional office and lie down in the dark. She managed to attend early afternoon congressional votes before flying to California to attend two political events, but she was in pain much of the time and sought emergency treatment. When Congress reconvened the following Tuesday, Bachmann missed a day of votes.

    In July 2010, Bachmann missed eight House votes while being treated and released for a migraine by a Washington hospital. Her staff at the time said an unspecified illness was the reason for the missed votes. The attack caused her to cancel a campaign trip. According to her own account, it took her four days to recover.

    The Daily Caller also reported an October 2010 incident that forced Bachmann to lie down at the home of a Connecticut donor who was hosting a fundraiser, then to seek urgent care in New York. Sources with firsthand knowledge confirmed the report to POLITICO.

    (end quote)

    I guess it all depends on how she defines “never”.

    And, if it is caused by her high-heels, why doesn’t she stop wearing them?

    Read more:

  3. Submitted by Lynette Lamb on 07/21/2011 - 11:29 am.

    Like Bachmann, I’ve had chronic migraines for 15 years.

    Unlike her, I have chosen to pursue low-stress jobs to help manage my migraines. The job of U.S. President is hardly low-stress.

    My other advice for Bachmann (whose politics I abhor): lose the ridiculous high heels, stop drinking alcoholic beverages, cut way back on caffeine, and try acupuncture (although I have trouble picturing her opting for any form of alternative medicine).

    P.S. Michelle: Any migraineur who is regularly ending up in the hospital is not managing her condition very well.

  4. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 07/21/2011 - 11:30 am.

    Neal, your comments make this sound more devastating than I would have thought. I was going to say that we have had seriously disabled presidents before–John Kennedy suffered from a host of medical issues, nearly died from an operation, was always in pain, and was on strong medications for the rest of his life.
    Bachmann, in addition to her ailments, is simply not up to the job in many other ways. She is poorly educated, does not seem to be able to tell fact from fiction, often lies, and sometimes makes outlandish statements that are almost unbelievable for a grown woman in this society.
    All those things rule her out long before I would even think about her migraines, in my opinion.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/21/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    I also suffered from migraine headaches for a period of about 15 years (although they are now very rare for me). I had what seems to be an usual trigger – yellow corn, as well as corn syrup (especially high fructose), yellow popcorn (although white popcorn was OK), even one mixed drink containing corn-based hard liquor (even vodka) often was a trigger, although potato-based vodka was not.

    This was good for my nutritional habits since I had to give up all candy as well as most other kinds of snack foods and pop (I also got a serious case of the “snaps” briefly (split second)-but-unavoidably falling asleep from drinking aspartame (nutrasweet,) a serious issue while driving.

    My migraines were very painful, but I have a high tolerance for pain so, although there were times that I shut myself up in a dark room if I could, my job (solo pastor in small town churches), required me to be on call 24 hours a day, and I never had a time when I couldn’t respond to an emergency and function normally despite being in serious pain.

    If Ms. Bachmann’s migraines and her response to them are no worse than mine, I do not believe they would interfere with her being president (although, in my estimation there are about a thousand other things about her that WOULD).

    Based on the list provided by Neal, above, however, I fear she is much more like others I have known whose migraine pain was far worse or whose tolerance of that pain was far less than mine; people who were sometimes completely incapacitated by their pain and whose pain was occasionally so blindingly excruciating as to require them to seek emergency medical care for pain relief.

    If her migraines commonly reach that level, she might find it very difficult, at times, to carry out the duties of the office of President.

  6. Submitted by greg copeland on 07/21/2011 - 12:32 pm.

    Gov. Dayton was unable to keep his official schedule today to welcome back to work, after the Northstar Melt-Down, DNR staffers at their St. Paul Headquarters due to what MPR reported as a headache.

    Given the crap Rep. Bachmann has taken for having migraines,a common and highly treatable condition,
    Gov. Dayton is showing great courage to admit he had to miss a scheduled photo op due to a headache; which the MPR report did not describe as a migraine headache.

    Now that headaches have been revealed as bi-partisan afflictions can we please declare this great headache debate to at an end.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/21/2011 - 02:19 pm.

    The story here isn’t Bachmann’s headaches – which doesn’t seem like a big deal to me – but the fact that a conservative publication (and maybe a rival candidate) is going after Bachmann.

  8. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 07/21/2011 - 02:37 pm.

    Mr Copeland (#6): You misapprehend this “issue” entirely. It is not partisan, but entirely internecine. Note, obviously, that the issue was daylighted by Tucker Carlson, a reliable water-carrier for the Republican establishment, which has decided that Ms Bachmann is moving from nuisance to threat and that it is time to seek to diminish her insurgency. This is not an issue to those on the left, who indeed – I would venture – find the coverage objectionable for its underlying assumption that absent migraines Ms Bachmann would be a credible Oval Office occupant. I would guess that from a political standpoint, the view on the left is that the longer it takes the Republican establishment to neutralize Ms Bachmann, the better.

  9. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/21/2011 - 02:41 pm.

    Bachmann is not unqualified based on her migraines.

    She IS unqualified due to her lack of experience, knowledge, and judgment.

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/21/2011 - 02:54 pm.


    There is a qualitative and quantitative difference in the degree of stress related to being the governor versus being the president. There seems to be much “off-time” in being governor (I recall a recent governor who spent much time in his term visiting states like Iowa and New Hampshire and polishing up a funny accent in the course of many rubber-chicken dinners)–unlike with a president where there doesn’t seem to be as much time for amusing hobbies. Unless of course, there is brush to be cut at the ol’ ranch.

  11. Submitted by William Levin on 07/21/2011 - 04:00 pm.

    As has been stated above, this is an attempt to discredit her by someone acting on behalf of another Republican candidate. Plenty of people function just fine with migraines. And even if she was able to reduce her own migraines, she’d still be a carrier!

  12. Submitted by Beth Welshons on 07/21/2011 - 05:12 pm.

    I think she has a very rare syndrome, as SHE makes ME sick.

    My sympathy to all you migraine sufferers out there. I have seen firsthand how disabling they can be.

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 07/21/2011 - 06:22 pm.

    I’m not a fan of Bachmann, no way; but to worry about her migraines?

    Next we will be wondering if she chews gum in church…and yet, with a wee bit of sympathy and sensitivity even, I do thank the gods I have never had that painful affliction, but…

    But more in focus, in one recent Iowa tour Bachmann claimed, “Everything I needed to know, I learned in Iowa’.

    Please note, she left her Waterloo at 12 years old.

    Then speaking to a Christian Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina a day ago, she said she “gave her heart to Jesus” some time ago.

    So who do we have running for higest offce in the land… a twelve year old mind with no heart?

    Now that worries me…

  14. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 07/21/2011 - 10:01 pm.

    “Like nearly 30 million other Americans, I experience migraines that are easily controlled with medication,” she said in a statement released Tuesday.“

    Except, it’s known that at least 18% of the population (59.4 million people) suffer from migraines, so Shelley’s off on her numbers already.

    “I have prescription medication that I take whenever symptoms arise and they keep the migraines under control. Let me be abundantly clear — my ability to function effectively has never been impeded by migraines and will not affect my ability to serve as Commander in Chief.”

    Nope. You don’t control migraines; they control you. And despite the claim in your letter published yesterday, your migraines can’t be “infrequent” if you have at least one per week.

    If you’ve been to an Urgent Care center to treat a migraine, it’s been a debilitating one and you’ve almost certainly been treated with a narcotic painkiller, which makes you incapable of performing the duties of Commander in Chief.

    “Migraines can come on for seemingly no reason at all, but they can also be triggered by environmental factors, including stress,”

    Not true. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim at all.

    Wearing high heels could be a factor in a triggering event for migraines, but if Shelley is as smart as she believes, she’d stop wearing high heels and then she’d find out. Stupid is as stupid does.

  15. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/21/2011 - 10:29 pm.

    If Bill Clinton’s painfull effects of venereal disease and Barry Obama’s addiction to nicotine and cocaine use didn’t disqualify them, then migraine headaches shouldn’t disqualify Bachmann.

  16. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/22/2011 - 07:33 am.

    Keepin’ it classy as always Dennis.

    This is an intramural fight between old boy Republicans wanting to keep the status quo and new born Tea Partiers.

    I think liberals are and should stay far, far away from this and let the pigs get dirty in their own mud.

  17. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/22/2011 - 08:16 am.

    Bachmann’s record of zero accomplishments as a legislator and zero experience’s helpful to a presidency are far bigger problems for her than headaches. Her shrill voice is a headache problem for the rest of us. Right now she is a headache for the Republican establishment because she is currently out doing the candidate they want as their front runner. They know she doesn’t have a chance but then again that can be said about all their current candidates. They are a party in total disarray. When asked who their leader is the Republican answer they have many leaders. Yes they do have many leaders. What they are lacking is leadership. Many leaders just lead to chaos. Go Bachmann! Continue you disruptive tactics. That will be good for the rest of us.

  18. Submitted by Michael Zalar on 07/23/2011 - 01:41 am.

    I don’t think migraines, per se, is a disqualifying factor – people can and do work through serious pain. However, I would like to see a bit more detail on the several meds she takes to keep her migraines in check – there may be something there that is mood altering, which might serve to disqualify her.

  19. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 07/23/2011 - 06:57 am.

    #16 and 17 sum it up perfectly! Run, Shelley, run…don’t let any Republicans or any facts stand in your way!

  20. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 07/23/2011 - 07:43 am.

    If Bachmann has migraines as frequently as once a week, and has required hospitalization in the recent past, she does not have a minor case. Her medication does not completely control the condition.

    Some of those medications can have psychoactive side effects, since they work almost completely on the brain, including disorientation, delusion, aggressiveness, and even paranoia. IMO she shows all of those symptoms.

    Regardless of political leaning not someone that want to have their finger on the button.

  21. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 07/24/2011 - 02:32 pm.

    Actually, with any kind of Vice President available, those migraines would be a plus. We should appreciate anything that would keep Michelle away from important decisions.

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