Migraines and Heart Problems: What's the Link?

A recent study suggests that middle-aged and older women suffering from migraine headaches accompanied by auras (changes in vision, smelling certain scents, and feeling pins and needles in the arms or legs) may have a higher risk of strokes and heart attacks than women who don't get migraines.

Study researchers caution that the number of women in the study who had strokes or heart attacks was relatively small (only 2.5 percent had experienced a stroke, heart attack, or related problem) and was seen most often in women who had either the most frequent or least frequent number of migraines.  For example, the study found that women with once-a-week migraines accompanied by auras were four times as likely to have had a stroke during the 12-year study than migraine-free women. And study participants who had migraines with auras less than once a month were more than twice as likely than migraine-free women to have a heart attack. They were also nearly twice as likely to have had a heart procedure, such as bypass surgery.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at nearly 28,000 female health professionals ages 45 and older, including 3,568 who had migraines.

Migraines are often chronic in nature and usually start in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. They're characterized by moderate to severe pulsing or throbbing pain. This pain may affect either one side of the head or both sides, interferes with regular activities, and can cause nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Although migraines affect nearly 30 million Americans, according to the U. S. Department of Health & Human Services, nearly three out of four migraine sufferers are women. Hormonal shifts, for example, right before or during a menstrual cycle and during pregnancy or menopause, are often cited as possible migraine triggers. Other triggers include foods such as aged cheeses, chocolate, alcohol and processed foods; stress; changes in sleep patterns; and changes in barometric pressure.

Some women with auras may be at higher risk for heart attack and stroke than others. These include those who smoke, have high blood pressure, or use hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy. If you suffer from migraines with auras, exercising, eating a healthy diet, and quitting smoking can help reduce your risk of heart problems.