Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Society for Women’s Health Research
June 25, 2009
Newswise — Headaches are a widespread problem in the United States, affecting roughly 45 million people. Migraine headaches affect millions of Americans each year they are the most common type of headache that sends patients running to their doctor’s office. Migraines occur when constricting blood vessels in the brain cause intense, recurring vascular headaches. Like other forms of headaches, women suffer from migraines more frequently than men.
Approximately three out of four migraine sufferers are women. Researchers have often cited hormones as a possible explanation. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of migraines in women transpire right before, during or after a woman has her menstrual period. And although some women experience migraines throughout their cycle, menstrual-related migraines may explain one trigger of the condition.
Right before a woman’s cycle begins, the levels of estrogen and progesterone drop sharply. This decrease in hormone levels may initiate migraine headaches because estrogen has been shown to control brain chemicals that affect pain sensation in women.
“Like in all neurological diseases, a combination of genetics and environment play a role,” says Richard Pearl, MD, a clinical neurologist in Suffolk County, N.Y. “One environmental factor is estrogen but a genetic predisposition has been firmly established.”
Although hormones are unlikely to explain the entire picture, a recent study revealed that women with a history of migraines may be less likely to develop breast cancer than other women. Because breast cancer has been linked to higher lifetime exposure to estrogen, the fact that migraines are more common when there is a drop in estrogen may support the hormone theory.
Christopher Li, MD, PhD, a cancer epidemiologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash. and study co-author is interpreting the results with caution. “It may be the treatments used for migraines,” Li told Scientific America, which include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. But if the painkillers are excluded, the lower levels of estrogen may be responsible for lower breast cancer rates and migraine headaches.
The symptoms, duration and frequency of migraines can vary greatly from person to person. They may be debilitating for some people. Often times, migraines can come along with sensory warning signs such as seeing flashes of light, blind spots or feeling nauseous (with or without vomiting). Other symptoms include:
– Intense, throbbing pain on one, or sometimes, both sides of the head.
– Feeling “pins and needles” in a limb.
– Sensitivity to light or loud sounds.
– Pain that worsens with physical activity and/or interferes with daily functioning