THURSDAY, June 7 (HealthDay News) -- Headaches don't kill. But you'd never know it if you relied on Hollywood for your medical information, researchers contend in a new report.
From a gracefully dying Bette Davis in the classic tearjerker "Dark Victory" to a doomed Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," films have portrayed headaches as much worse than they are in real life, the researchers said. And this could leave an unsuspecting public with a distorted sense of headaches and their threat.
"A lot of people with headaches in the movies end up dead," said study co-author Dr. Katherine Henry, an associate professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine. "That sends a frightening message to moviegoers."
Researchers have devoted significant time in recent years to analyzing how movies portray medical conditions such as comas and epilepsy. Not surprisingly, they are rarely benign.
In the new study, researchers searched the Internet Movie Database for movies that mentioned headaches in their descriptions. They found just 23 films made between 1931 and 2005.
Some of the movies are classics (including the Joanne Woodward multiple-personality drama "The Three Faces of Eve" and the James Cagney gangster flick "White Heat") or recent semi-hits ("Garden State" and "Dark Water"). Others are obscure, including a 1990 movie called "Dark Romances Vol. 1" that the researchers were only able to find by special order.
The researchers watched the movies to see if they accurately portrayed headaches. About half of the characters with headaches suffered melodramatic deaths, many of which were violent.
The Cagney character in 1949's "White Heat," for example, died in a fiery explosion at a chemical plant, yelling the famous line "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" Kidman's Virginia Woolf character in 2002's "The Hours" committed suicide. Demons and spirits also killed headache sufferers.
The study authors also found that Hollywood headaches are often a symptom of a greater illness like cancer or an aneurysm -- or a remote control device implanted in a hapless person's head.
In real life, headaches usually aren't caused by other conditions, the researchers noted.
In another divergence from reality, most of the 26 headache sufferers in the 23 movies were men, while women are actually more likely to suffer from headaches.
The study authors acknowledged that they don't know what effect movies have on perceptions about headaches. The research also didn't look at the many TV shows focused on medicine that attract tens of millions more viewers than a few dozen movies.
Still, the authors assume the films have influence. "There's an assumption that everybody will go to the movies and realize it's all fantasy," said study co-author Dr. Bert Vargas, a neurology resident at New York University School of Medicine. "But we realize there's (some) reality, and it's hard for a moviegoer to pick up what's accurately portrayed and what's inaccurately portrayed."
But what about the inherent dramatic nature of films, which don't rake in big bucks if they tell routine, boring stories about people with routine, boring illnesses? "There's a lot of interesting things you can do with a character, but directors are killing them off because of a headache," complained Henry.
As a result, "patients worry a lot about what their headaches are from," she said. "It lends a little bit of anxiety when they start thinking about their headaches -- is there really something bad going on?"
The researchers were to present their findings Thursday at the American Headache Society's annual meeting, in Chicago.
To learn more about headaches, visit the National Headache Foundation.
SOURCES: Katherine Henry, M.D., associate professor of neurology, and Bert Vargas, M.D., neurology resident, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; June 7, 2007, presentation, American Headache Society annual meeting, Chicago