Women and Migraines

As a woman who suffers from migraines, you probably feel that you experience this condition differently from your male counterparts.  In fact, almost 85 percent of migraine sufferers are women, and this is one of the most prevalent serious health conditions among women.  In the United States, there are almost 28 million female migraine sufferers.

If you are a woman who experiences migraines, you are also likely to experience them more often than men. Fifty percent of women suffer more than one migraine episode a month, and 25 percent suffer four or more episodes a month.  The intensity of these attacks may be greater among women as well; almost 92 percent of women with severe migraines are disabled.

What Is a Migraine?

A migraine is an intense headache that may appear with the following symptoms:

  • Throbbing pain on one side of the head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • Visual disturbances may precede the attack
  • Pain may last hours
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Tingling one side of face, arms or legs

There are four distinct stages of a migraine attack, although not everyone experiences all four stages every time.

  1. Prodrome—This stage precedes the actual attack by one or two days. Symptoms may include
    1. Constipation
    1. Neck stiffness
    1. Mood changes
    1. Food cravings
  2. Aura—this stage may occur before or during the migraine attack and include visual phenomena, auditory hallucinations, weakness or numbness on one side, or difficulty speaking.
  3. Attack—the actual migraine attack may last four to 72 hours. During this phase, you may experience intense pain on one or both sides of your head, accompanied by sensitivity to light or sound, nausea, or vomiting.
  4. Post-drome—following the migraine attack, you may feel exhausted, confused, or, even, elated. You may also experience minor pain if you move your head suddenly.

Migraine Causes

There is no clear scientific consensus on what causes migraines, but there is evidence that the trigeminal nerve which runs through your eyes and mouth may play a key role. If your serotonin levels fall, this may trigger the trigeminal nerve’s release of neurochemicals into the brain that may precipitate a migraine.

There are certain factors that influence migraines.  If a family member has migraines, there is a higher chance you will get them as well.  Migraine episodes typically start in the teen years and hit their peak in the 30s before tapering off in later years.  Many people may experience a migraine attack when under stress presumably because of certain neurotransmitters released during periods of anxiety.

If you suffer from migraines, it is in your best interest to record the circumstances preceding each episode. This may help you and your doctor identify the personal triggers for you that touch off an episode. This may include foods, drinks, dehydration, loud sounds or strong smells.

Finally, you should know that hormones like estrogen may play a key role in causing migraines. In some women, hormone level changes due to birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy may trigger or suppress attacks. Many women also experience more migraines during menstruation.

Why Women Suffer from Migraines More Often

Medical researchers have found that among pre-pubescent children, boys are more likely to suffer migraines than girls, but once the hormonal changes associated with puberty occur, females are three times more likely to experience migraines. This strongly suggests that hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone play an important role in migraines.

This linkage is further underscored by changes that happen during pregnancy. From 50 to 80 percent of women who suffer from migraines experience some relief from symptoms during pregnancy. It is believed that the rising estrogen levels during pregnancy help suppress migraine symptoms.

Menopause also brings some relief for migraine sufferers. Almost two-thirds of women migraine sufferers will experience some improvement in their condition upon completion of menopause. Some women even completely stop having migraines following menopause.

Many scientists believe that the decrease in estrogen that occurs during menstruation may be a key factor in triggering migraines. This would explain why most migraines strike before or after menstruation. Following menopause, estrogen levels may remain low, but they don’t fall, which helps explain why the occurrence of migraines decline.

However, hormones alone are not sufficient to explain this condition. Most medical authorities agree that hormone levels are important, but migraines are related to brain sensitivity.  Some neurochemical change occurs that touches off a migraine attack, but this stimulus happens to many other people without inducing a migraine.

How to Treat Migraines in Women

Because migraines in women are so closely tied to hormonal levels, treatment of this condition among women involves maintaining steady levels of estrogen and progesterone. While hormonal medications may help women who suffer from menstrual migraines, it may not be effective for other kinds of migraine sufferers.

It may be possible to prevent or mitigate the symptoms of migraines by using one or more of the following therapies:

  • NSAIDs with triptans—non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or Tylenol (acetaminophen) can be combined with triptans, i.e. drugs that mimic the actions of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Triptans take about two hours before they start relieving pain, but the NSAIDs produce some relief much faster.
  • Caffeine—it may seem like an old wives’ tale, but caffeinated drinks have proven effective in minimizing the symptoms of migraine attacks in some people.  You should drink a caffeinated beverage when migraine symptoms first appear and only in modest amounts, as too much may lead to withdrawal headaches.
  • Restful sleep—many people find that lack of sleep can trigger a migraine, so you should make it a habit to get a regular, full night of sleep. Employ good sleep hygiene practices like the same bedtime and wake up, limited media exposure before bed, and avoiding caffeine late in the day.
  • Healthy diet—overall better health should help stave off migraine attacks because there should be less stress on your body. Avoid foods that you know can trigger an episode.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.