Access to Migraine Treatment — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 20 March 2024.

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Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Conservative, Bishop Auckland 9:30, 20 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered access to migraine treatment.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Let me start by stating the blooming obvious: migraine is not just a headache. It is a complex neurological spectrum condition, of which a headache is just one possible symptom. This is a very strong early message to anyone suggesting that migraine attacks can be cured with a couple of paracetamol: it is time to learn and to be better. Listen to this debate and to the testimonies of those living with this debilitating condition, and help us together overcome the stigma surrounding migraine, which for centuries has acted as a barrier to accessing quality treatment for those suffering.

Before I get into the full swing of things, I want to express my gratitude to the House authorities for organising a survey to which more than 500 migraine patients responded. I am grateful to each and every one of them, and to others who reached out to me separately to share their experiences. Some of those testimonies have been eye-opening and some have been quite harrowing. I will endeavour to include as many as I can in this speech. As ever, my thanks go to the National Migraine Centre and the Migraine Trust not only for their support for this debate but for their round-the-clock work to support people living with migraine.

We cannot have a Westminster Hall debate without a bit of a history lesson at the beginning, so I did a bit of a dig through the history of migraine and found that the earliest known references to it date back thousands of years to ancient Egyptian times. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, was the first to document clinical observations about migraine in about 400 BC. Classifications of headache were first outlined in the first century AD by Aretaeus of Cappadocia, whose category of heterocrania displayed many similar symptoms to migraine. Galen wrote of severe pain affecting almost half the head in the second century, and the Iranian physician al-Rāzī devoted an entire chapter of his book to the symptoms and treatment of migraine in the 9th century. Then in the 17th century, Thomas Willis published his theory that megrim owed to the dilation of blood vessels within the head.

Throughout the years, key figures are reported to have experienced migraine. They include leaders such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy; great thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin; artists such as Van Gogh; writers such as Virginia Woolf; and actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Jackman and Gwyneth Paltrow. There is even strong speculation that the trippy nature of “Alice in Wonderland” was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s own migraine attacks with aura. In his diaries from 1885, Carroll talks of the

“odd optical affection of seeing moving fortifications followed by a headache.”

His works led to the term “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” being coined to describe

“Certain hallucinations peculiar to migraine”.

In Carroll’s diaries of 1856, he records a trip to see William Bowman, one of the top ophthalmologists of his time, to discuss the visual disturbances in his right eye, which Bowman was unable to formally diagnose. Perhaps that was because it was not until the 1870s that visual manifestations of migraine began to gain more widespread recognition among medical professionals.

Migraine is than twice as likely to affect women, but in that period it was believed that we weak women merely had hysteria and fragility of the mind, unlike the ambitious men who got migraine only because of how hard they were working. Women being taken seriously in healthcare is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Although I greatly welcomed the women’s health strategy, I was a little disappointed not to see migraine more formally mentioned. Perhaps the Minister will discuss that with me separately.

The 1870s were 150 years ago, and we might naively assume that in that time the magnificence of medical innovation has created cures and solutions that mean that people no longer suffer the terrible symptoms of migraine. Back in 1954, the then Minister of Health told those affected by migraine:

“Cheer up;
there is a good deal of work going on, mostly under the Medical Research Council”.

That led to a response in 1960 by John Rankin, then the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan, who said.

“For six years, and long before that time, the good work, so we are informed, has been proceeding, yet nothing appears to be happening.”—[Official Report, 4 March 1960;
Vol. 618, c. 1671.]

More than 60 years later, despite migraine affecting roughly 10,000 people in every constituency in the UK, a Hansard search informs me that there has been no full debate on migraine in Parliament since the 1960s.