Did you know that 60% of women have migraines related to their period?
As if all of the other menstrual symptoms weren’t bad enough, go ahead and throw in a raging headache, nausea and dizziness.
While menstrual migraines can be horrible and debilitating, there are ways that you can both prevent and treat the pain during your period.
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is so much more than a headache.
A migraine is actually a neurological condition that can cause a multitude of unpleasant symptoms, such as intense headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraines usually start with a trigger or some sort of incoming sensory information. For some people, it could be as simple as opening the curtains to a bright day or experiencing an intense smell.
In response to the trigger, the brain produces a big reaction that creates an increase in electrical activity. This activity causes a change in blood flow to the brain, which affects the nerves and causes pain.
In the case of menstrual migraines, however, menstruation isn’t the trigger that causes migraines – there’s something more hormonal happening that causes them.
How Are Migraines Linked to Periods?
Due to the drop in estrogen and progesterone levels prior to menstruation, women who suffer menstrual migraines may likely be sensitive to these hormonal fluctuations.
Research has shown a potential link specifically between the drop of estrogen and migraines.
However, studies have not yet indicated at what level an estrogen drop is associated with migraines. What they have concluded is that, since estrogen is independent of menstruation and progestin (as seen in women who have had hysterectomies), this is a very likely cause
But is estrogen withdrawal the sole cause of menstrual migraines?
Research suggests that it isn’t, since menstrual cramps and painful periods (both associated with estrogen) respond to anti-inflammatory medication. For this reason, it is suggested that the hormone prostaglandin is involved as well.
It has been shown that prostaglandin levels increase by 300% during the first two days of your period – the same timeframe when menstrual migraines are likely to happen.
So it’s safe to say that menstrual migraines are a direct result of the hormones estrogen and prostaglandin.
This being the case, however, does that mean that menstrual migraines are different from regular migraines?
Symptoms of Menstrual Migraines
Since a menstrual migraine is similar to a regular migraine, you may notice the following symptoms:
- Auras. Auras are temporary visual disturbances that appear as specks or rings of light in your visual field.
- Throbbing pain. This pain occurs on one side of your head.
- Nausea. Migraines can make your stomach feel unsettled.
- Vomiting. Migraines can also lead to vomiting.
- Sensitivity to light and sound. Bright lights and loud noises may seem painful while you are experiencing a migraine.
The main difference between a regular migraine and a menstrual migraine is that a menstrual migraine typically lasts longer and involves more nausea – and they usually don’t involve having an aura.
The timing is significant as well, since menstrual migraines occur at the beginning of (or a couple of days before) your period.
Alleviating Menstrual Migraines
Menstrual migraines usually start between two days before the onset of menses and two days after the onset of your period.
One simple option is to begin taking 500mg of Naproxen twice a day during these 5 days (the two days before, the day of and two days after).
Remember to always take anti-inflammatory medication with food to help prevent the formation of stomach ulcers. Also, don’t take any if you have a history of ulcers or an allergy to aspirin.
The best way to deal with migraines is to prevent them altogether. Once you end up in the throes of one, it’s impossible to stop them.
However, there are ways you can alleviate the pain and discomfort if you do suffer a menstrual migraine:
- Cold packs. Place a cold pack (or a bag of peas wrapped in a towel) to your forehead for 15 minutes at a time.
- Hot compress. A heating pad to the back of the neck may help to alleviate the pain.
- Dim the lights. Lay down in a darkened room and avoid bright lights.
- Avoid chewing. This motion can cause further pain in your head. Stick to soft foods until the migraine goes away.
- Have some caffeine. Don’t overdo it, but having some caffeine (such as coffee or tea) can help to calm the migraine.
- Let your hair down. Having your hair in a ponytail, or wearing a hat, can add unneeded pressure to your head and aggravate the migraine.
- Take liquid pain relievers. Your body will absorb them much faster than tablets.
If at home remedies are not sufficient in easing the suffering of a menstrual migraine, it may be time to speak to your healthcare professional.
Medical Treatments for Menstrual Migraines
At your doctor’s suggestion, there may be a medical treatment that can help you deal with menstrual migraines.
One popular option is the use of triptans or ditans. These drugs will block the pain signals in your brain and can start to work within 2 hours of taking them.
Your doctor may have you take both an non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication as well as a triptan to find relief. You can begin taking these a couple of days before your period starts and continue them for up to a week.
This can prevent the migraine from happening in the first place.
Another medical option is a handheld device known as gammaCore. It is a noninvasive nerve stimulator you can use on your neck to relieve the migraine pain.
Diagnosing Menstrual Migraines
There are no medical tests to determine if you are truly suffering a menstrual migraine as opposed to a headache or regular migraine.
If you feel that you are, however, your best bet is to keep a journal of headaches and when they occur in relation to your period.
Should you determine that you are suffering from menstrual migraines, a last course of action may be to seek hormonal treatment.
Something like an estrogen patch applied to the skin may be another option in regulating hormonal levels and preventing menstrual migraines.
Also, contraception such as Depo-Provera (the needle) may work to level out estrogen as well. However, though it may work for some women to alleviate menstrual migraine, it can actually worsen them for others.
Migraines suck, and do so more for women who are already experiencing additional symptoms of menstruation.
If this is you, be rest assured that there are ways of preventing the pain before it occurs.
And, if this isn’t sufficient, your doctor can suggest more robust treatments to eliminate the onset of menstrual migraines.
A woman’s body is an amazing machine that can create and carry life, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept the pain and discomfort that comes with that.
So if you are suffering from any painful and debilitating menstrual symptoms, including migraines, don’t hesitate to speak with a healthcare professional.
Do you suffer from menstrual migraines? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.