The Migraines and Obesity Connection

How Your Weight Influences Your Headaches and What You Can Do About It

How Your Weight May Affect Your Migraines
How Your Weight May Affect Your Migraines. Lori Adamski Peek/Getty Images

Whether you have used an online tool or saw your primary care physician, most of us have had our body mass index or BMI checked in the last year or two. If you had a BMI in the obese range (>30), did it motivate you to start losing weight? Did you ever connect your obesity with your migraines?

Obesity is a worldwide epidemic and has devastating health consequences. While we commonly hear about the link between obesity and heart disease or diabetes, many people do not know about the evidence linking obesity to various pain disorders such as migraines.

The Link Between Migraines and Obesity

In one study in Neurology, researchers gathered information on headache features and BMI on over 30,000 individuals through a telephone-based analysis. Of those individuals, nearly 3,800 participants were diagnosed as having migraines according to the International Classification of Headache Disorders.

The results showed obese individuals were more likely to have severe, disabling migraine attacks and a higher number of attacks than those who were not obese.

Additionally, obesity has been identified as one of the many potential culprits for precipitating the transformation from an episodic migraine to a chronic migraine. Migraine attacks are brutal on their own, and undergoing the transformation to a chronic migraine can further negatively impact one's quality of life and daily functioning.

This interesting connection between migraines and obesity is not totally clear.

It's possible that these two conditions share a common pathway, like an increased level of inflammation in the body. While this association is complex, studies suggest that it definitely exists – which hints that weight loss may be a good way to improve your migraine attacks, both in number and severity.

 

Weight Loss in Migraine Treatment

Should people with both obesity and migraines embark on a weight loss plan? One small study in Neurology found that severely obese migraineurs – with an average BMI of 46 – reported a marked reduction in the number and severity of their headaches at six months after undergoing weight reduction through bariatric surgery.

Certainly, the majority of obese individuals are not undergoing bariatric surgery. But the key point here is that it would not be harmful to get control of your weight - with the added bonus that it may help your migraines, in addition to having a variety of other health benefits.

The Bottom Line

Remember there is no evidence that obesity directly causes migraines or vice versa. Rather, there is a link or an association between obesity and migraines – what mediates this link is still unclear and may vary for each person.

The best thing you can do as a person living with migraines is to speak with your neurologist or primary care physician about weight loss strategies if you are obese.

These may include strategies like calorie restriction with the help of a nutritionist, an exercise program that fits your interests and time constraints, or even bariatric surgery if traditional weight loss strategies have not worked for you.

If you have migraines, weight loss may be especially important for preventing them from becoming chronic. It's also a good idea to review the side effect of weight gain for any headache medications you are taking – this could be a hidden culprit, especially if you have noticed weight gain since starting it. 

Sources:

Bigal ME, Liberman JN, Lipton RB. Obesity and migraine: a population study. Neurology. 2006 Feb 28;66(4):545-50.

Bigal ME, Lipton RB. Obesity is a risk factor for transformed migraine but not chronic tension-type headache. Neurology. 2006;67(2):252-257.

Bond DS, Vithiananthan S, Nash JM, Thomas JG, Wing RR. Improvement of migraine headaches in severely obese patients after bariatric surgery. Neurology. 2011;76(13):1135-1138.

Ornello R et al. Migraine and body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. J Headache Pain. 2015;16:27. 

Tepper DE. Migraine and Obesity. Headache. 2013 Apr;53(4):719-20.

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