Health Implications of Migraines
The pain of a migraine headache is often indescribable. Part of this has to do with the sheer intensity of the pain itself, but it also has to do with the fact that so many senses are involved – it’s not just headache pain; it’s headache pain plus an icepick-in-your-eyes pain plus feeling-every-hair-on-your-head pain plus hearing-every-sound-in-the-house pain plus feeling-every-inch-of-skin-as-if-it-were-crushed-glass pain. It’s a lot more than a headache.
That in-and-of-itself is reason enough to want to be rid of migraine headaches. However, there is a more important reason. Over the past ten years, studies have shown that people that suffer from migraine headaches have a significantly increased risk of major cardiovascular disease and stroke as they age.
In fact, compared to controls, studies reveal that migraine sufferers have:
- Increased risk of major cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Increased risk of stroke; this risk is dramatically increased in women under the age of 45 that use oral birth control
Those that have migraine with aura have about twice the risk as those with migraine without aura.
This begs the question – WHY?!
The exact mechanism is unknown and currently being investigated. Therefore, let’s use current knowledge as our guide. Most strokes or heart attacks happen by one of two mechanisms:
- A clogged blood vessel, which blocks blood flow causing a lack of oxygen and other nutrients which causes tissue to die.
- Hemorrhage, where a blood vessel weakens, balloons and bursts causing the loss of blood, oxygen and other nutrients, starving the brain or heart of these nutrients which causes the tissue to die.
Now let’s look at how these relate to the mechanism of a migraine. During a migraine a person experiences extreme constriction of the blood vessels followed by rapid dilation. Constriction of the blood vessels is akin to having them clamp down on themselves; it’s the difference in diameter between having a long skinny balloon blown up versus empty.
Now imagine that a blood clot is traveling down that blood vessel. During dilation, that blood clot is much more likely to travel further and further into the brain or heart into the smaller and smaller blood vessels, which can choke them off and lead to a heart attack or stroke. During constriction, that same blood clot could easily get caught in a large blood vessel, causing a massive shortage of blood to a larger portion of the heart or brain.
In addition, after years and years of migraines, the stress of repeated constriction and dilation of the blood vessels can cause them to weaken. Think back to our balloon analogy – how many times can you blow up and deflate a balloon before the balloon pops? The same is true of your blood vessels; after a lifetime of dilation and constriction, the blood vessel walls can weaken, greatly increasing the risk of a hemorrhage, which can cause a stroke or a heart attack.
Three pictures depicting blood vessels bursting after suffering migraines over many years.
Thus, the real reason we want to eliminate migraine headaches is more than just to eliminate the pain and improve your quality of life; it’s to reduce and eliminate your risk of major cardiovascular disease and stroke and significantly increase the quantity of your life!