Just a headache? Maybe, but that migraine might also be a sign of a more serious health issue.
Sandhya Mehla, MD, a specialist with the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute Headache Center, said migraine is connected with several health conditions that require attention.
“Migraine isn’t the cause of other conditions, but there is certainly a direct link. In addition, people who get migraine headaches are also more susceptible to certain health conditions,” she said.
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Those conditions include:
- Stroke. “This is a very complex connection. We see patients with stroke-like symptoms but they’re actually experiencing an aura from a migraine, or vice versa,” she said, adding that people who have migraine with aura are twice as likely to have a stroke, especially women under the age of 45. “This is why we ask women not to add other risk factors for stroke to their lives, like combined hormone birth control and smoking. Those together can raise their risk seven times,” she noted.
- Heart disease. Heart disease and heart attacks are both more prominent in men who have migraines. Dr. Mehla said there is new research showing a relationship link between migraine and incidence of atrial fibrillation. High blood pressure is also linked with how often you have headaches due to migraine.
- Sleep disorders. Someone with migraine is up to eight times more likely to have insomnia or another sleep disorder, but it’s not clear which came first. Dr. Mehla said poor sleep can contribute to migraine, and migraine can disrupt sleep.
- Hearing loss. While the reason is unclear, and the condition is rare, she said there are case reports showing a sudden hearing loss during migraine. Once the headache lifts, the hearing impairment persists, she said.
- Lyme disease. There is a proven link between the tick-borne illness and new onset chronic headache, but Dr. Mehla questioned whether the conditions actually just overlap or if Lyme causes headache.
- Depression. People who have anxiety are more likely to have migraine, and having both increases the chances of depression.
- Pregnancy problems. Migraine, especially with aura, increases a woman’s risk of such pregnancy complications as preeclampsia and pre-term birth. It does not cause the troubles, Dr. Mehla stressed, but they co-exist.
“It’s important to talk about all of your symptoms with your healthcare provider or headache specialist to get to the root of the problem you might be facing,” Dr. Mehla said.
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The complexity of migraine and its connection to other serious health conditions makes an in-depth physical exam key to effective diagnosis and treatment, Dr. Mehla said. Often, treatable conditions like multiple sclerosis are uncovered in the process, she said.
“These conditions can be masked by the headache,” she noted.