A Critical Exploration of Migraine as a Health Disparity: the Imperative of an Equity-Oriented, Intersectional Approach

  • Deanna R. BefusEmail author
  • Megan Bennett Irby
  • Remy R. Coeytaux
  • Donald B Penzien
Psychological and Behavioral Aspects of Headache and Pain (D Buse, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Psychological and Behavioral Aspects of Headache and Pain


Purpose of Review

Despite recognition of rising prevalence and significant burden, migraine remains underestimated, underdiagnosed, and undertreated. This is especially true among groups who have been historically, socially, and economically marginalized such as communities of color, women, people experiencing poverty, people with lower levels of education, and people who hold more than one of these marginalized identities. While there is growing public and professional interest in disparities in migraine prevalence, there is a paucity of research focusing on racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities, and the social and structural determinants of health and equity that perpetuate these disparities. From a health equity perspective, migraine research and treatment require an examination not only of biological and behavioral factors, but of these identities and underlying, intersecting social and structural determinants of health.

Recent Findings

Significant disparities in migraine incidence, prevalence, migraine-related pain and disability, access to care, and quality of care persist among marginalized and underserved groups: African Americans, Hispanics, people experiencing poverty, un- or under-employment, the un- and under-insured, people who have been exposed to stressful and traumatic events across the lifespan, and people experiencing multiple, overlapping marginalized identities. These same groups are largely underrepresented in migraine research, despite bearing disproportionate burden. Current approaches to understanding health disparities in migraine largely assume an essentializing approach, i.e., documenting differences between single identity groups—e.g., race or income or education level—rather than considering the mechanisms of disparities: the social and structural determinants of health.


While disparities in migraine are becoming more widely acknowledged, we assert that migraine is more aptly understood as a health equity issue, that is, a condition in which many of the health disparities are avoidable. It is important in research and clinical practice to consider perspectives that incorporate a cultural understanding of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic identity within and across all levels of society. Incorporating perspectives of intersectionality provides a strong foundation for understanding the role of these complex combination of factors on migraine pain and treatment. We urge the adoption of intersectional and systems perspectives in research, clinical practice, and policy to examine (1) interplay of race, gender, and social location as key factors in understanding, diagnosing, and treating migraine, and (2) the complex configurations of social and structural determinants of health that interact to produce health inequities in migraine care. An intentional research and clinical focus on these factors stands to improve how migraine is identified, documented, and treated among marginalized populations.


Migraine Health equity Health disparity Intersectionality 



The authors gratefully acknowledge Dr. Shawn Kneipp, Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich, Dr. Janet Bettger, and Dr. Janice Humphreys for their thoughtful and insightful contributions to the development of concepts in this manuscript.

Compliance with Ethics Guidelines

Conflict of Interest

Deanna R. Befus, Megan Bennett Irby, Remy R. Coeytaux, and Donald B Penzien declare no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Deanna R. Befus
    • 1
    Email author
  • Megan Bennett Irby
    • 2
  • Remy R. Coeytaux
    • 1
  • Donald B Penzien
    • 3
  1. 1.Center for Integrative MedicineWake Forest School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA
  2. 2.Program in Community Engagement, Clinical and Translational Science InstituteWake Forest School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA
  3. 3.Departments of Anesthesiology and NeurologyWake Forest School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA

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