Recently, a mother brought her adolescent daughter to my office for advice about menstrual migraine therapy. After I made my suggestions, I thought it might be timely to give a few “notes” (I sound like a producer) for the website regarding the causes of and treatments for this debilitating disorder. Migraine headaches are unfortunately very common; they affect nearly 28 million Americans including 18% of all women and 6 % of all men. A migraine is defined as a one sided, severe, pulsating headache aggravated by physical activity together with sensitivity to light (photophobia) and sound (photophonia). The true migraine usually manifests itself in 4 phases. (This is not a simple come and go headache).
The Premonitory Phase (Prodrome): This phase is due to neurochemical alterations in the brain and is most commonly associated with fatigue, difficulty concentrating, stiff neck and light sensitivity. It can also include mood swings, food cravings, yawning, change in vision, nausea and vomiting.
The Aura Phase: This occurs in 15% t 20% of migraine attacks. The ends of the 5th facial nerve ( the trigeminal nerve) are activated causing symptoms that include scintillating lights, distorted vision and numbness and tingling in the hands or face. These sensations are usually followed within 60 minutes by the headache. Rarely an aura can occur and not be followed by pain; it’s then aptly called a migraine aura without headache. This may be a final neurological diagnosis (by exclusion) once a full work up for symptoms of stroke is negative.
The Headache Phase: The trigeminal nerve that gives us our sensory perception from our face also provides a pain pathway from the meninges (the capsule around our brain). Though a complex system called the trigeminovascular system, the nerve can become activated by many triggers. This trigeminal activation then instigates the transmission of impulses in the brainstem and causes a release of substances called vasoactive neuropeptides. They, in turn, cause dilation of blood vessels and inflammation in the meninges. The activated trigeminal nerve fibers become abnormally sensitive and any stimulus, such as light, sound or even gentle touch can increase pain. (This explains why most migraine sufferers want to be left alone in a dark room without human contact once the migraine occurs.)
The Post Headache Phase (Postdrome): Migraine symptoms can last for up to 2 days. This “post” seems to go on forever!
More than half of the women who suffer from migraines have them in association with their menstrual cycles; moreover, the migraines that occur with their periods are worse than all others. There are 2 kinds of cycle associated migraines… (Medicine is chock full of nomenclature.) Pure menstrual migraines occur without aura 2 to 3 days after the start of menstruation but do not occur at any other time during the menstrual cycle. Menstrual related migraines include menstrual migraines but attacks can also occur at other times in the menstrual cycle (often days before the onset of the period, or right after ovulation). It is thought that change in hormones, especially the decline of estrogen before and during the period, play a role. Also as an added insult, when we menstruate, pain stimulating substances called prostaglandins are released and can trigger headache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea even in women who do not have true migraines!
OK, now that I have given you a synopsis of Migraine 101, let me get to therapies. First … those that are nonphamacologic: This is where we try to limit migraine triggers, use relaxation training and biofeedback. Although I can’t teach you how to do the latter two in this summary, I can at least acquaint you with triggers that you can avoid. They fall into 4 categories:
- Diet: Alcohol, chocolate, aged cheese, monosodium glutamate artificial sweeteners, caffeine, nuts, nitrates and nitrites and citrus fruit. Not all these affect the same person and clearly there are other foods that can less frequently act as triggers.
- Changes: weather, seasons (maybe we should all live in San Diego or Hawaii), travel, altitude, schedule changes, sleeping patterns, diet changes, skipping meals.
- Sensory Stimuli: Strong lights, flickering lights, odors
- Stress: Let-down periods, intense activity, loss (death, separation, divorce); relationship difficulties, job loss/change and anything that causes emotional or physical crisis.
The above includes much of what we do or experience in life! But I would be remiss if I didn’t give you this list. (In case you want to know my reference it’s from The New England Center for Headaches… it should also be applicable to those of us residing in the West Coast).
Now let’s get to pharmacologic therapy:
- Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID’s): These interfere with those pain promulgating substances, the prostaglandins. They include ibuprophen, aspirin and naproxen. Some of these OTCs also include caffeine. If they don’t work after 4 to 6 hours or result in “bounce back” of the migraine once stopped and/or they need to be used continuously for several days, you are probably better off with a prescription medication.
- Triptans: These are prescription medications that bind to and activate specific receptors called 5-HT which are expressed on the smooth muscle cells in the walls of blood vessels. They induce constriction of those dilated vessels in the meninges of the brain that caused the migraine in the first place. The good news is that they usually work within 20 to 30 minutes and don’t cause sedation so you can continue your normal activities. There are at least seven triptans. One type is combined with an NSAID. The best way to use them is at the very onset of the migraine.
- Ergots: These have been used since the 1930’s. They constrict blood vessels and activate 5-HT. They are less “in vogue” for migraine therapy because of their potential side effects (such as an elevation of blood pressure).
Preventive Treatment: This requires daily use and includes medications that are used to treat hypertension (beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers), certain antidepressants that decrease the conduction of pain stimuli (tricyclics) as well as anticonvulsants. I would include hormonal therapy as a mode of migraine protection for many women. I frequently prescribe oral contraceptives to my younger patients who are migrainers in order to stop the ebb and flow of hormones during their cycle. (Remember that hormonal contraception signals the pituitary to NOT send signals to the ovaries to develop follicles and ovulate.) I suggest using the active pills or a contraceptive vaginal ring continuously so that there in no break in the hormone level it provides. (No you don’t NEED to stop and get your period.) If there is a break in active contraceptive hormone use (some patients prefer to take it for 3 months at a time, or experience bleeding after a few months and “take a short break” from the Pill or ring), I prescribe an estrogen patch to “cover” the time off so that the decline of estrogen does not instigate a migraine.
At this point, I should add a warning: The occurrence of migraines without aura has been shown to increase the risk for stroke by a factor of 3, whereas if aura is present this increases to a factor of 6. The use of oral contraceptives in women with stroke is considered an independent risk factor for stroke. So ACOG (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) discourages use of oral contraceptives in women who have migraines with aura.
Now, let’s consider migraines in menopausal women. They often improve. (Finally, something to look forward to as we age!) Once we stop the vacillations of our hormones in our reproductive years, the migraines may lessen. However (sorry, but there is often a “however” in medicine), some menopausal women begin to experience migraines once they no longer produce estrogen. If they want to reinstate their premenopausal estrogen status, I then prescribe transdermal estrogen….usually a patch so that they achieve a “steady state” of estrogen with no ups and downs.
This has been a longer website article than most. But since so many of my patients, friends, staff and relatives (my daughter) suffer from migraines; I felt I owed it to them to give a fairly complete summary. I hope it didn’t give you a headache!