Female migraine sufferers ‘more likely’ to develop cardiovascular disease, finds study

young woman's face

Women who suffer migraines have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease – such as heart attack, stroke, high cholesterol and high blood pressure – a possible biomarker for early detection and potentially prevention, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Research teams in the US and Germany tracked the health of 115,541 female nurses aged between 25-42, between 1989 and 2011. While none of the women had any history of cardiovascular disease at the outset, 17,531 (15.2%) of the participants had a clinical diagnosis of migraine. Over the course of the study it was found that - compared with the women who did not experience migraines - those that did had a greater risk of developing major cardiovascular disease and a higher risk of cardiovascular mortality.

Migraine and stroke risk already well documented

Other studies have also shown an association between migraine and increased stroke risk but, according to researchers, this is the first time migraine has been linked to other major cardiovascular events elsewhere in the body, such as the heart.

In a linked editorial, researcher’s Dr Rebecca Burch of Harvard Medical School and Dr Melissa Rayhill, from the State University of New York at Buffalo were keen to point out that women who suffer migraines should not be overly concerned about the findings. They stress that the increased risk is relatively small on an individual basis, but it is particularly relevant on a population level since migraine is such a common condition.

Further study – can migraine treatments help reduce these risks?

The study authors recognise that some questions relating to treatment remain unanswered, including whether treatments that reduce frequency or severity of attacks could also act to reduce these risks.

woman laying on sofa

What is migraine?

According to NHS Choices, migraine involves a moderate to severe intense, throbbing pain in the head and, occasionally, the face and neck.

Markedly different to a normal headache, migraines are debilitating and sufferers frequently report dramatically increased sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, an inability to concentrate, sweating and pale, clammy skin. Unlike a normal headache, continuing normal activities during a full-blown migraine attack is virtually impossible. Most sufferers will need to rest in a quiet, darkened room until the migraine passes – usually within hours, however some people suffer migraine attacks for days at a time. It is common to feel fragile, weak and drained once an attack is over.

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Migraine and aura

Some people also experience what is known as aura - visual and neurological disturbances such as flashing lights, blind spots, feeling dizzy and numbness or tingling in the fingers, arm and face that indicates a migraine is about to begin. Sometimes sufferers can prevent a full-blown migraine attack if they take appropriate medication as soon as they begin experiencing aura, but often an attack is inevitable.

When to seek help

The NHS advises anyone who suffers from frequent (more than five days in a month) or severe migraine that can’t be managed with over the counter painkillers to discuss other treatment options with their GP. For more information on obtaining a diagnosis of migraine, visit NHS Choices.

What causes migraine?

According to The Migraine Trust, stress, dehydration, missed meals, strong sunlight, a change in routine and a lack of sleep are all common triggers for a migraine attack. A change in atmospheric weather conditions may also trigger an attack in particularly sensitive people.

For women, hormonal changes are also strongly associated with migraine. Some will experience migraine for the first time during puberty and at certain points during their menstrual cycle. While migraines may continue to be troublesome during the menopausal years, some women report that migraine frequency diminishes after the menopause.

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Common migraine triggers

Many sufferers report certain avoidable triggers for migraine, including common foods such as mature cheeses, chocolate, red wine, dark-skinned fruits such as grapes and blueberries and strong-smelling substances such as household cleaning products, petrol and smoke.

When to seek urgent help

The NHS warn that severe migraine can sometimes be confused with the symptoms of other more serious conditions, such as stroke or meningitis. If you or someone else develops the following symptoms, call 999 for an ambulance.

  • Paralysis or weakness in one or both arms – characterised by an inability to lift the arm above the head and keep it there
  • Slurred speech
  • A sudden and agonising headache more painful than anything previously experienced
  • High temperature
  • Neck stiffness, inability to place the chin on the chest
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Double vision
  • A rash.

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About the author

Georgie Fenn, writes most of our news articles and social media posts.