What To Know About the Health Risks of Migraines

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. However, a migraine is a neurological condition (a condition where the nervous system is affected) with unique symptoms and causes.

Researchers believe genes play a part in migraines and are looking into the connection to improve treatment options. Scientists have also uncovered links to other conditions, like epilepsy, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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

Depression

The risk of having depression is three to six times higher in people who have migraines compared to those who don't. And while it's possible that people with migraines become depressed because of the pain, depression can also come first.

This suggests the two have something in common—genes, neurology, or both. "The prevailing belief is that there's some shared underlying predisposition to both disorders, and either one can come first," said Richard B. Lipton, MD, a professor and vice chair of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Some drugs used to treat depression, notably amitriptyline, can treat migraines. Amitriptyline affects levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which raises the possibility that serotonin also plays a role in migraines.

Anxiety

People with chronic migraines are also likely to have an anxiety disorder. Around half of the people with migraines also have symptoms of anxiety.

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."

Medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy) can help if you have both anxiety and migraines. Sometimes treatments, like antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), work for both conditions. Other times, people need separate treatments to manage migraines and anxiety independently.

Stroke

Migraines with aura are a particular type of migraine symptoms related to your senses (e.g., vision) that come before or occur along with the headache. 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. Individuals who experience migraines with aura also have an increased risk of a stroke, when a mass that forms in the heart goes to the brain.

There are ways to lower the risk of stroke even more by not smoking and maintaining healthy levels of:

Epilepsy

The seizure disorder, epilepsy, and migraine can involve sensory issues and mood changes. The two conditions can also happen together. Migraines can lead to epilepsy or the other way around.

Although having one doubles your risk of the other, said Dr. Lipton—especially in the case of idiopathy epilepsy and migraines with aura—either can come first.

"They're both disorders of brain excitability, where the brain is likely to react to environmental stimuli, to sleep deprivation," said Dr. Lipton. "Some of the specific genetic causes of migraine also cause epilepsy."

Because of those shared causes and brain reactions, certain anti-epileptic medicines (e.g., topiramate) can treat both conditions. Additionally, taking epilepsy medications as prescribed and getting the right amount of sleep can help you manage symptoms of both conditions.

Heart Disease

In addition to having a higher risk of stroke, people with migraines also have a higher risk of heart disease. One study found that people with regular migraines were more likely to have heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, and blood clots than others.

Researchers also said there might be several reasons why heart disease and migraines are related. The links include:

  • Types of migraines, with or with auras
  • Hormones, genes, sex, and gender
  • Endothelial dysfunction (non-blockage heart disease when the heart's blood vessels constrict)
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Social stigma
  • Disability
  • Other heart-related conditions (e.g., stroke, heart attacks)

To keep yourself as healthy as possible, managing your weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure may decrease your risk of developing heart-related issues and migraines.

Asthma

Even though asthma is a breathing disorder and migraine is a neurological condition, the two can go together. For example, one review found a 54% higher chance of migraines being associated with asthma and a 42% chance of a person developing asthma if they already had migraines.

Inflammation seems to be what the two conditions have in common. "In asthma, there's inflammation and excessive constriction of the airways," said Dr. Lipton. "In migraine, there's excessive inflammation of the blood vessels outside the brain."

This inflammation of the blood vessels outside the brain may cause intense throbbing pain, a sign of a migraine headache.

One trigger that asthma and migraines share is stress. Stress-relieving and relaxation techniques, including deep breathing exercises, may ease symptoms of either condition.

Obesity

If you already have migraines, excess weight can make them worse. If you've never had a migraine, obesity can trigger them.

Like asthma, the common denominator may be inflammation, which can be caused by excess weight, so losing weight can possibly help with migraines. Ways to start losing weight include eating balanced meals, getting enough physical activity, and managing stress.

A study in Obesity Surgery found that people with obesity and a history of migraines saw an improvement in their severity and how often they occurred after losing weight with bariatric surgery.

However, weight loss methods related to diet and physical activity should be considered first when it comes to migraine-relief efforts.

Pain Disorders

Many pain disorders go hand-in-hand with migraines and other types of headaches. These disorders include fibromyalgia and chronic pain of the:

  • Neck
  • Back
  • Shoulders

It's unclear exactly how migraines and other painful conditions are linked. "Some people may have genetic predispositions," said Dr. Monteith.

It might have to do with the pain meds 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 comes from, but CBT and alternative therapies like acupuncture can help.

Digestive Issues

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

People with migraines have a higher prevalence of several GI-related concerns, including:

Certain foods and drinks may aggravate digestive problems and result in migraines. Avoiding the things that trigger either condition can offer symptom relief.

If you're unsure which foods or drinks are problematic, consider making a food log. The log can give you an idea of what you consumed that resulted in having a migraine.

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 and sleep.

RLS also has been shown to have a link with migraines. One study looked at the relationship between RLS, migraines, and vitamin D. The researchers found that vitamin D levels were lower among those with migraines—and RLS was more prevalent in the migraine group compared to the control group.

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.

Because migraines and RLS can mess with an individual's sleep patterns, aiming for good sleep habits may help. Good sleep habits, or sleep hygiene, includes practices like:

  • Making sure your bedroom is comfortable and relaxing
  • Going to bed at the same time every night
  • Waking up at the same time every morning

Bell's Palsy

Bell's palsy happens when the nerves in your face are temporarily paralyzed. Sometimes the symptoms occur only on one side of the face. Symptoms might include:

  • Twitching
  • Weakness
  • Drooping eyelids

While Bell's palsy symptoms might sound like those of a stroke, the two conditions are not related. However, a Neurology study found that people with migraines had an increased risk for Bell's palsy.

The study researchers couldn't say why there might be a link but thought that it could be related to changes in blood vessels, inflammation, or infection since some viruses have been linked to Bell's palsy.

Scientists have not found a cause for Bell's palsy. However, one risk factor for Bell's palsy is obesity. So, weight loss may be a way to lower the risk for both Bell's palsy and migraines.

A Quick Review

Migraines can be hard to deal with on their own, but they can also come with other health issues. Those problems include conditions such as heart-related or digestive issues, depression or anxiety, and asthma.

Depending on the health issue, there may be ways to get relief or reduce the risk of having both the conditions and migraines in general, including watching stress and weight and getting enough sleep.

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Sources
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