Can Migraines Cause a Higher Risk of Anything Else?

If you get migraines, you may be more likely to experience one of these related conditions.

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Migraines are sometimes thought of as just really bad headaches, but they are actually a neurological condition with distinctive symptoms and causes. Researchers believe there is an underlying genetic component and are looking into the connection to improve treatment options, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Scientists have also uncovered links to other conditions. Some are also neurological, like epilepsy, but others are respiratory, like asthma, or gastrointestinal, like irritable bowel syndrome.

If you have migraines, it's good to be aware of potential connections to other health risks. Read on to learn more.

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Depression

If you have "episodic" migraines (those that occur once in a while), you have double the risk of depression than someone without any migraines. If you have chronic migraines (15 or more days a month), your risk doubles again, said Richard B. Lipton, MD, a professor and vice chair of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

While it's possible that people with migraines become depressed because of the pain, the depression can also come first. This suggests the two have something in common—genes or neurology or both. "The prevailing belief is that there's some shared underlying predisposition to both disorders, and either one can come first," said Dr. Lipton.

Some antidepressant drugs, notably amitriptyline, can actually treat migraines, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Amitriptyline affects levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which raises the possibility that serotonin also plays a role in migraines.

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Anxiety

People with chronic migraines are even more likely to have an anxiety disorder than they are depression: Around half of people with migraines also have anxiety, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Like with depression, the anxiety or the migraines can come first, said Teshamae Monteith, MD, director of the headache program and assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "Patients that have anxiety in life are more likely to develop migraines, and vice versa."

Sometimes one treatment (often an antidepressant) works for both conditions; other times, people need separate treatments–medications for migraines and behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders. It's important to find an anxiety treatment that works. People who go untreated may be less likely to stick with their migraine meds and may not respond as well to the drugs either.

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Stroke

Migraines with aura are a particular type of migraine in which visual or other sensory symptoms precede or occur along with the headache, according to the Association of Migraine Disorders. There is a link between strokes caused by blood clots and this type of migraine.

People who have migraines with aura have about twice the risk of a stroke as the general population, said Dr. Lipton, but overall, that risk is still very small. "Migraine, particularly with aura, is largely a disease of younger women and women are at a lower risk of stroke than men. Even though the risk doubles, it's still incredibly low."

Even so, there are ways to lower that risk even more by maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels and not smoking.

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Epilepsy

The seizure disorder epilepsy and migraine can both involve sensory disturbances and mood changes. Having one doubles your risk of the other, said Dr. Lipton, but either can come first. "They're both disorders of brain excitability, where the brain is likely to react to environmental stimuli, to sleep deprivation," Dr. Lipton said. "Some of the specific genetic causes of migraine also cause epilepsy."

Because of those shared causes and brain reactions, certain anti-epilepsy drugs like topiramate and divalproex sodium can treat both conditions.

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Heart Disease

In addition to having a higher risk of stroke, people with migraines also have a higher risk of heart disease, and a 2018 study in the BMJ found that migraine sufferers were more likely to have heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, and blood clots than other people.

To keep yourself as healthy as possible, control your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

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Asthma

Even though asthma is a respiratory disorder and migraine is a neurological condition, the two can go together. The common denominator may be inflammation.

"In asthma, there's inflammation and excessive constriction of the airways," said Dr. Lipton. "In migraine, there's excessive inflammation of the blood vessels just outside the brain." In fact, this inflammation of the blood vessels outside the brain may cause the excruciating throbbing pain that is the hallmark of a migraine headache.

The asthma drug montelukast can also help prevent migraines, said Dr. Lipton.

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Obesity

If you already have migraines, excess weight can make them worse. If you've never had a migraine, obesity can actually trigger them. "Some studies have found that those who gain weight over time are more likely to have migraines," said Dr. Monteith.

Like asthma, the common denominator may be inflammation, which can be caused by excess weight. Losing weight may help. A 2020 study in Obesity Surgery found that people with obesity and a history of migraines saw an improvement in migraine severity and frequency after loosing weight with bariatric surgery.

Paying close attention to your diet can stave off migraines in another way, too. Certain foods like red wine, chocolate, and processed meats can trigger attacks, so avoiding them can be helpful.

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Pain Disorders

Many pain disorders, including fibromyalgia and chronic pain of the neck, back, and shoulders, tend to go hand-in-hand with migraines, as well as other types of headaches.

It's unclear exactly how migraines and other painful conditions are linked. "Some people may have genetic predispositions," said Dr. Monteith, or it might have to do with pain medications themselves. "Patients that take medications for low back pain or other types of pain may become sensitive to the pain medication and might get overuse headaches," said Dr. Monteith.

Treatment depends on where the pain is coming from, but cognitive behavioral therapy as well as alternative therapies like acupuncture can help, said Dr. Monteith.

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Digestive Issues

Experts believe there's an intricate relationship between the gut and the brain—they call it the gut-brain axis. Not only does your digestive tract affect your mood, but the gut and the brain even share similar tissues and chemical messengers, said Dr. Monteith.

People with migraines have a higher prevalence of a number of GI-related concerns, including irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease. Research published in Headache in 2019 has even found that babies born to mothers who get migraines are more likely to have colic as infants.

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Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes such a strong urge to move your legs that it can interfere with daily life, as well as with sleep.

No one knows exactly why RLS and migraines are connected, but the link may have to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain involved in both movement and migraines.

There may also be a link between migraines and Parkinson's disease, which develops when the brain no longer produces enough dopamine. One 2014 study in Neurology found that people with mid-life migraines were more likely to develop Parkinson's later on, but more research is needed, said Dr. Monteith.

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Bell's Palsy

Bell's palsy is a temporary paralysis of nerves in the face, according to NINDS. Symptoms might include twitching, weakness, and drooping eyelids. Sometimes the symptoms happen only on one side of the face.

While Bell's palsy symptoms might sound like those of a stroke, the two conditions are actually not related. However, a 2014 study in Neurolgy found that people with migraines had an increased risk for Bell's palsy. The researchers couldn't say why there might be a connection but speculated that it could have to do with changes in blood vessels, inflammation, or infection, since some viruses have been linked to Bell's palsy.

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