Migraine and Multiple Sclerosis Connection

Migraines as a Symptom or Predictor of MS

Mature woman with head in hands and eyes closed, close-up
MS and Migraine. Christopher Robbins / Getty Images

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. In its early stages, symptoms of MS may be similar or confused with a migraine attack.

Let's explore the interesting connection between MS and migraines.

How are MS and Migraines Alike?

The majority of patients with multiple sclerosis have a form of the disease called relapsing-remitting MS – which means their disease is characterized by episodes of neurological symptoms and/or disability – known as relapses.

Sometimes these MS relapses can be difficult to distinguish from a migraine attack, especially migraine with aura, where visual symptoms commonly occur. In addition, like migraines, patients with MS have triggers for their relapses or attacks.

Patients with MS have different levels of disability and rates of progression of their disease making every case unique. This is similar to migraineurs – who often describe unique triggers and symptoms associated with their attacks.

Are Migraines a Symptom of MS?

Migraines can occur in patients with MS. In fact, a headache may be the dominant symptom of an MS relapse. Moreover, the symptoms of migraine and MS can overlap, which can make an accurate diagnosis challenging.

Sometimes, MS is misdiagnosed when a patient is really having migraines. This may occur when a patient sees a neurologist for their headaches and a magnetic resonance imaging or MRI of the brain is done which shows brain lesions called white matter lesions or plaques — basically, white spots on the brain.

Migraines too can show white matter lesions on the brain, although the pattern is usually different from that of MS and must be interpreted cautiously. This experience can be anxiety-provoking for the patient.

Is There a Link Between MS and Migraines?

Yes, although the relationship is still unclear. In one study, published in Multiple Sclerosis, results showed that women with migraines prior to their diagnosis of MS had a 39% higher risk of developing MS when compared to the participants without migraines.

Please note, the study also shows that the actual chance of developing MS over a 15-year follow-up of the women was 0.47% for women with migraines and 0.32% for women without migraines. This means that, regardless of whether or not you have migraines, your chance of developing MS is still extremely small, less than one percent.

Another study in Headache found an association between brainstem plaques and headaches in MS patients. When compared to patients without lesions in the brainstem, the patients with the lesions were more likely to suffer from both migraines and tension-type headaches.

The Science Behind the Link

There are a couple theories about the link between migraines and MS. One hypothesis suggests that a change in serotonin levels in the brain from migraine attacks could predispose individuals to MS.

Another theory is that the inflammation of the brain that occurs during migraine attacks may expose the myelin to T cells, the "attack" cells in MS.

Take Home Points

  • Further studies are needed to both confirm the link between MS and migraines and provide data as to exactly why an association exists.
  • Keep in perspective that the chance of developing MS is still very small regardless of your headache background.
  • Remember, a link does not mean that one condition causes another.
  • Make sure your doctor correlates your MRI findings with your symptoms when making a diagnosis of MS or migraines. If you are perplexed by their interpretation, then ask questions!
  • Be proactive in your healthcare. Discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. You might be surprised to hear your doctor say that you are not alone and that he has heard this same concern from several other patients.


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