If you’re one of the more than 30 million people in the United States who suffer migraine attacks—three-quarters of whom are women—the threat of pain is constant, frustrating, and often debilitating.
As if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out a headache isn’t your only worry: Migraines have been linked to other health issues. Knowing the risks associated with migraines can help you take precautions.
What conditions have ties to migraines? Are you more likely to have some medical problems if you get those intense headaches?
Women who get migraines with aura are more likely to have a stroke, which happens when part of your brain suddenly gets cut off from a blood supply. Studies show the chance of having a stroke gets worse if you also smoke, have high blood pressure, or take birth control pills.
You’re more likely to have heart disease, such as chest pain called angina or a heart attack, if you also have migraines, and vice versa. But there are many things you can do to help lower this risk, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep.
High Blood Pressure
Some studies show that people with migraines may be more likely to have high blood pressure. But the research was mostly with white women, so more studies are needed to see if this holds true for others as well.
You’re more likely to have this condition, which causes seizures, if you get migraines — and the other way around, too. Both conditions appear to be caused by a similar problem: cells in the brain called neurons that are unusually sensitive. And both disorders may be due to genes you get from your parents. Doctors use some of the same drugs, like divalproex sodium (Depakote) and topiramate (Topamax), to treat them.
“Migraine shows up more often in people who have bipolar disease and depression,” Dr. Kraig says. “With both, there’s a genetic predisposition to having a hyper excitable brain.” The more frequent your headaches, the more likely you are to be depressed, research shows.
It’s not clear whether your headaches directly lead to depression. But your lifestyle goes a long way toward elevating your mood and preventing migraines, Dr. Kraig says. He recommends taking a daily 20-minute stroll outdoors and getting lots of sleep at night. Both of these decrease brain excitability, and so help you avoid migraines and their attendant blues.
Sleep problems, including insomnia, are common in people who get migraines. They can also lead to anxiety and depression, which are linked to migraine. Irregular sleep habits are also one of the major triggers for migraine headaches. You may sleep better if you wake up every day at the same time and avoid alcohol and caffeine late in the day.
Anxiety and Depression
About 25% of people with migraine have depression, and up to 50% have anxiety. It’s more typical if your migraines are frequent — headaches on 15 days out of the month. The links aren’t clear, but it may have something to do with the way your brain sends signals from one neuron to another with a chemical called serotonin.
It’s a condition that makes it sound as if there’s ringing or hissing in your ear. For some people, the problem may only get really bad when they have a migraine. It’s not clear why this happens, but it could be that neurons send abnormal signals during an attack.
Migraines make you more likely to have sudden hearing loss. That’s an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing that happens over a few days. It’s extremely rare. However, folks who get those severe headaches get sudden hearing loss twice as often as people who don’t get migraines.
This is a syndrome that causes chronic pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. Migraines are common in people with fibromyalgia. Still, there’s no evidence that having migraines makes you more likely to get it.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
People who have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, like belly pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, are more likely to get migraines. And new research links them to some of the same genes. More study is needed to figure out what treatments might work together to help these conditions.
It stands for posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s a response to a traumatic event like abuse or a bad car accident. When you have PTSD, you “relive” it, including the intense emotions. You’re more likely to have migraine if you have this problem. In people with both conditions, almost 70% have PTSD symptoms before they get a headache. Your doctor may be able to help you manage your symptoms with therapy and medication.
Low Blood Sugar
When your blood sugar levels are too low, you have a problem called hypoglycemia. This can trigger a migraine in some people. But a headache caused by fasting is not always due to low blood sugar. It could happen for many reasons, such as you didn’t drink enough water, you cut back on your regular amount of caffeine, or your body released stress hormones because you haven’t eaten.