Image: Michelle Bachmann
Brett Flashnick  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks to the South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce at Christ Central Ministries in Columbia, S.C., on Monday.
By contributor
updated 7/20/2011 1:34:46 PM ET 2011-07-20T17:34:46

Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s acknowledgment that she suffers from migraines has sparked debate about whether her headaches should keep her out of the White House.

At least 36 million Americans are thought to experience migraines, and three-quarters of them are women. Migraines are often described as intense, throbbing pain in one part of the head accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting. Some people experience an “aura,” such as flashing lights or a temporary loss of vision, before the onset of a migraine.

Bachmann says her migraines are controllable, but news reports say that, over the years, Bachmann has missed hours or even days of work because of debilitating migraines. She has not released information about the frequency of her headaches but says she takes prescription medication on occassion when she starts to develop symptoms.

Some reports refer to Bachmann’s condition as “chronic.” If that’s true, then, in the strict medical sense, that would mean she suffers migraines 15 or more days a month for at least four hours a day, says Houston neurologist and headache specialist Dr. Randolph Evans.

Even if they’re not chronic, “migraines could be a huge problem for somebody who’s president,” says Evans, adding that about half of all migraine attacks are debilitating enough to force a sufferer to lie down.

Plus, he says, common migraine triggers, such as stress, travel, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, are practically part of the president’s job description. And topiramate, an anti-seizure drug commonly prescribed to prevent migraines, causes cognitive impairment — difficulty finding the right word or problems with short-term memory — in about 10 percent of patients, he says.

First Read: Bachmann says her migraines are controllable

Even so, says Evans, himself a migraineur who’s never missed a day of work because of his headaches, “having a migraine automatically doesn’t make you unfit to be president.”

Bachmann's campaign released a letter by Brian Monahan, the attending physician for the U.S. Congress, that said Bachmann has had an extensive evaluation by his office as well as a neurologist.

"Your evaluation has entailed detailed labwork and brain scans all of which were normal. Your migraines occur infrequently and have known trigger factors of which you are aware and know how to avoid," Monahan said in the letter to Bachmann.

He said she controls her migraines with prescription medication sumatriptan and odansetron and that "you are overall in good general health."

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After a rally in South Carolina Tuesday, Bachmann pointed out that she hasn't been incapacitated while campaigning.

"I'd like to be abundantly clear: My ability to function effectively will not affect my ability to serve as commander-in-chief," Bachmann said. "Since entering this campaign for the presidency, I have maintained a full schedule between my duties as a congresswoman and as a presidential candidate traveling across the nation to meet with voters."

Dr. Joel Saper, founder of the Michigan Headache & Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, notes that White House doctors would quickly be able to inject Bachmann with any one of several drugs that can effectively treat migraines.

Although he doesn’t know Bachmann, Saper says, he’d recommend that she go public with more information about her migraines. “Most cases are treatable.”

If Bachmann were elected president, she reportedly wouldn’t be the first migraineur to hold that office. According to the National Migraine Association, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., both Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant suffered from migraines. More recently, in Super Bowl XXXII in 1998, former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis earned MVP honors despite having to sit out the second quarter because of a migraine. news services contributed to this report.

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Video: Bachmann denies ‘incapacitating’ migraines

  1. Closed captioning of: Bachmann denies ‘incapacitating’ migraines

    >> michele bachmann is surging in the early presidential polls, but today she's facing some questions about her health and how it might affect her campaign and possible presidency. kelly o'donnell's nbc's capitol hill correspondent. good morning.

    >> good morning, matt. michele bachmann is somewhere between contender and front-runner and with that comes negative attention and stories. sometimes they have refused to comment about some of that criticism. but when it came to her health, she responded quickly.

    >> don't give up!

    >> reporter: this time the questions have nothing to do with her politics.

    >> i prescribe medication that i take on occasion whenever symptoms arise, and they keep my migraines under control.

    >> reporter: a report on michele bachmann 's struggle with migraines is a political headache on the campaign trail.

    >> but i'd like to be abundantly clear, my ability to function effectively will not affect my ability to serve as commander in chief.

    >> reporter: in south carolina on tuesday --

    >> this is a bold step.

    >> reporter: -- bachmann faced questions about that report saying her migraines can be, quote, incapacitating. a conservative website the daily caller based its story on accounts from aides.

    >> the headaches have resulted in her going to the hospital at least three times that we know of. and in one case, she missed congressional vote because she was hospitalized.

    >> reporter: bachmann chose to take it head on insisting migraines do not harm her candidacy.

    >> since entering this campaign for the presidency, i have maintained a full schedule.

    >> reporter: strong said his unnamed sources have their own political agenda .

    >> these are republicans who worried that barack obama could skate away with re-election if this blew up during the general election campaign.

    >> reporter: campaigning last summer, bachmann 's hometown paper said she was hospitalized briefly with an undisclosed illness. tuesday she tried to offer an upbeat spin making this about public education rather than damage control .

    >> the many questions i have received have allowed me to discuss this important condition that impacts many americans and individuals in nearly one in four american households.

    >> reporter: doctors say migraines are common and treatable with medication but can be brought on by stress.

    >> the body is telling you you need sleep or needing to eat or needing to reduce the stress levels.

    >> reporter: and that's where the politics comes in.

    >> it goes to the heart of the question of her ability to serve. and her condition may not be a problem, or it may be a big problem. that's why she has to come clean.

    >> and the health of canned dadidates is often a sunl of campaigns. i was in the room when medical records were shown for john mccain or john kerry , but it usually doesn't happen this early. bachmann and her campaign say they may be pressured to provide more information like what types of medications she takes, but they say it's not an issue now. matt?

    >> kelly o'donnell reporting from washington, thanks very much.


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