Migraines have long been linked to cardiovascular disease. According to a study published online in Neurology on June 24, how often the headaches occur influences the type of long-term problems they cause. Women with occasional migraines have a higher general risk for heart disease, while those with more frequent headaches are primarily at increased risk for a stroke.
One in four women suffer from migraines.
Migraine is a chronic headache disorder that causes intense pain. The pain often occurs on just one side of the body and is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines are more common in women, affecting as many as 1 in 4 women (compared with 1 in 13 men). The exact causes of migraine headaches are not known, but common triggers include:
- Caffeine, chocolate, or alcohol
- Hormonal changes
- Changes in sleeping patterns
Women who have migraines with aura (a temporary disturbance of the senses, such as seeing lights or feeling numbness or tingling) have double the risk of dying of heart and blood vessel disease compared with women without the disorder. Previous studies have also shown that the longer you have experienced migraines, the higher your risk. This latest study adds to our understanding of the link between migraines and cardiovascular disease by showing that how often headaches occur may also play a role.
In this study, researchers looked at 28,000 participants in the Women's Health Study, more than 18% of whom were active migraine sufferers. Three of four had a migraine less than once a month; another 20% had them monthly, and 5% once a week or more.
Over a 12-year follow-up period, women who suffered migraines less than once a month were more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack and 81% more likely to require a procedure to treat coronary artery disease (such as stent placement or bypass surgery). Women who suffered from weekly migraines, on the other hand, had a more than 4-fold increase in stroke risk, but were no more likely to have a heart attack or require a heart disease procedure than women without migraines.
The reason for the link between frequency and type of disease is not clear: it may represent fundamental differences in the causes of these migraines; alternatively, factors that cause heart disease and stroke could be interacting with migraine causes to produce different symptoms.
What to Do
Whether or not you suffer from migraine headaches, it's important to know the symptoms of heart disease and the signs of stroke and what to do if you experience them. The good news for migraine sufferers is that migraines, though painful, are not dangerous in themselves. You can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke by getting your other risk factors under control.
Prevention and treatment of migraine symptoms is focused on medication and lifestyle changes including:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin or acetaminophen
- NSAIDS such as ibuprofen
- Prescription medications called triptans
- Some medications used mainly for other conditions such as high blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants
- Avoidance of migraine triggers, such as certain foods
Source: Kurth T, Schürks M, et al. Migraine frequency and risk of cardiovascular disease in women. Neurology. Published ahead of print June 24, 2009, abstract available at http://www.neurology.org/cgi/content/abstract/WNL.0b013e3181ab2c20v1.