Why You Get Period Headaches and How to Prevent Them

Headaches before or during your period are fairly common, but you can prevent them.

period-headache
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Cramping, bloating, and, of course, bleeding, make menstrual periods unpleasant enough. But on top of these common (and less common) symptoms, many people also experience headaches.

Here's what to know about this type of monthly pain and what you can do about it.

Why You Get Period Headaches

Your hormones fluctuate throughout your monthly menstrual cycle. Just before your period begins—assuming you didn't become pregnant after ovulation—your estrogen levels drop sharply. Estrogen helps to regulate your cycle and can also affect headache-related chemicals in your brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"People sometimes don't realize that our hormones are linked to brain chemicals and to our mental state," said James Woods, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester. "Any sudden change in hormones can mean changes in mood or anxiety levels, or it can mean experiencing more symptoms like headaches."

Research presented in The Lancet in 2021 suggests that about 20%–25% of women who experience migraines report a connection between their menstrual period and migraine attacks. These menstrual migraines tend to occur in the two days leading up to a period and the three days after a period starts.

It's hard to say whether all period-related headaches are migraines, said Dr. Woods, since the definition of migraines has changed and expanded over the years. "But what we can say is that the vast majority of these headaches are linked to this drop in hormones," he said.

Those who are going through menopause often experience menstrual migraines as well. Once someone has stopped having periods altogether, those migraines are likely to stop.

Relief for Menstrual Headaches

Since period-related headaches are fueled by hormonal changes, it can help to prevent large fluctuations, explained Dr. Woods. "A birth control pill that levels out those hormones throughout the month...can really help," he said.

Some women report an increase in headaches, though, when taking hormonal birth control medications, the Mayo Clinic reports. Also, some types of birth control may not be safe for women who get migraines with auras, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

If you choose not to or cannot take hormonal birth control, your doctor may advise taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or prescription pain relievers like triptans, which block pain signals in your brain.

Non-drug methods for pain relief are also options. Stress can contribute to headaches, so finding ways to relax during your period—and all month long—may help relieve symptoms. Alternative therapies, including acupuncture, yoga, or hypnosis, may be of benefit, as can applying ice to the affected area of your head. And some people report that strong coffee helps too.

"There's no one simplistic treatment that works for everyone," said Dr. Woods. "It's often a trial of different approaches until we find something that fits."

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