10 Must-Know Facts About Women Who Suffer From Migraines

woman with a migraineIf you've ever contended with a brutal, nearly debilitating collection of neurological symptoms known as a migraine, you're in good company. For nearly 30 million Americans, migraines are a regular occurence. And about three out of four migraine sufferers is a woman. That is a whole LOT of pain. Ugh.


But the more we know about the medical condition, the more likely we may be to keep it at bay. Here, 10 scientific facts about women and migraines.

1. Your period may have something to do with it. More than half of women's migraines happen right before, during, or after a woman has her period, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Docs may refer to this as "menstrual migraine," but if you have them around your period, chances are you probably get them at other points during the month as well. Experts attribute the higher incidence around your period to a drop in estrogen and progesterone. And estrogen controls neurochemicals that affect pain.

2. But menopause may improve them. Perhaps the same hormones could be responsible for fewer migraines as you get older. About two-thirds of women with migraines report that their symptoms improve when they go through menopause.

3. Women may suffer more, because of our brains. Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that women who had migraines rated them as being as intense as the men did, but they tended to find them more unpleasant. They then looked at brain scans and found female migraine sufferers showed slightly thicker gray matter than men in two regions: one, the posterior insula, is well-known in pain processing; the other, the precuneus, has been recently linked to migraines but is more widely known as a fundamental brain hub that may house a person's consciousness or sense of self.

The upshot: We may have greater activation of emotional pain processing which ties into the unpleasantness we associate with migraine.

More from The Stir: The News Women With Migraines Definitely Don't Want to Hear

4. Migraine may not have to do with expanding blood vessels. We've all heard that migraine pain is caused by expanded blood vessels, but a published in The Lancet Neurology found that arteries on the outside of the skull did not expand during women's migraine attacks. Instead, they believe migraine pain occurs because the nerve fibers around the blood vessels become extra sensitive.

5. Women who experience migraines have a higher risk of depression. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts looked at medical histories of women over 45 years old.  Compared to women with no history of migraine, those who had ever had one were 36 percent more likely to become depressed. Women who used to get the headaches but were migraine-free in the year leading up to the study were 41 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression. The type of migraine women experienced did not influence depression risk. Clearly, there's a link; scientists now aim to identify brain chemicals that may contribute to both conditions.

women migraines

6. A migraine may not be the best excuse for a "not tonight, honey." Having sex helped treat a migraine in 60 percent of sufferers, according to researchers from the University of Munster in Germany. It worked for cluster headaches, too. The reason: Sex triggers the release of endorphins, which act as natural painkillers.

7. Migraines with aura may be a red flag for heart risks. Women who suffer from migraines with aura (visual disturbances, like flashing lights) may be more likely to have problems with their heart and blood vessels, according to research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. But researchers warn that this doesn't mean that everyone with migraine with aura will have a heart attack or stroke. It just means women may want to work to reduce their risk by not smoking, keeping blood pressure low, and staying physically active.

8. Migraines and some birth control pills do not mix. If you're taking a newer generation combination contraceptive -- like drospirenone, the norgestromin/ethinyl estradiol transdermal patch, or the etonogestrel/ethinyl estradiol vaginal ring -- and also suffer from migraines, you may be at higher risk for blood clots, say researchers at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital in Boston who analyzed the medical records of 145,304 women who were using combination birth control between 2001 and 2012.

They found that women with migraines had an increased risk of blood clots or stroke compared to women without migraines. And women who had migraines with aura were at even more risk. For this reason, they encourage women to discuss their migraines with their doctors and take that into consideration when choosing a form of birth control.

9. Migraines can occur after a stressful incident. You may think that your risk of having a migraine would decline once stressful experience is over, but the relief you feel -- and a correlating drop in stress hormones like cortisol -- may actually trigger migraine, according to a study from Yeshiva University in New York. The solution, researchers say, is to calm down with sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and relaxation practices that balance the nervous system.

10. Coffee may be a trigger, especially for women. May need to skip that Starbucks ... People who occasionally experience migraine attacks are at a higher risk for developing chronic daily headaches when they have too much caffeine. One study found that drinking 100 mg of caffeine daily tripled the likelihood of developing these headaches than those drinking less. The association was especially notable for young women -- a group already at greater risk for migraine.

What has your experience with migraines been like?


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