Why Women Have More Migraines

The Link Between Hormones and Migraines

Woman in bed with severe headache
Getty Images/Blake Sinclair

Talk about inequality between the sexes: some 28 million Americans suffer from migraines, but these headaches affect three times more women than men. The culprit? Hormones.

Although sex hormones aren't completely to blame—environmental changes like noise, bright light, smells, and movement can trigger a migraine, too—research suggests there may be a connection between migraines and fluctuations in estrogen levels.

The Migraine-Menstruation Connection

Boys experience more migraines than girls prior to puberty. After age 11, however, girls begin to experience these debilitating headaches more often with the onset of menstruation. The highest incidence of migraines in women happens around age 40. Aging and menopause reduce the frequency.

Is It a Migraine—Or Just a Really Bad Headache?

Although headaches are common at the time of menstruation, not all of these headaches can be classified as a migraine. Menstrual migraines occur, usually without aura, and are headaches that occur only during the period of two days before and two days after the onset of your period. They occur most frequently on the first day of your period, while premenstrual syndrome (PMS) related headaches usually end with the onset of menstruation.

Birth Control Pills: A Blessing Or a Burden?

If you're on the Pill, you may be surprised to know that it may be a trigger for migraines.

If it is for you, should you switch to another form of birth control? Unfortunately the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. While getting off the Pill may provide relief eventually, it can take up to 12 months before you notice improvement. The number of migraines I have experienced in the last 11 years since having my tubes tied and getting off the Pill have dropped dramatically.

I was a regular (severe, go to bed, turn off the lights, put a pillow over my head, and don't anyone make a sound) migraine sufferer from my teens until my early thirties. Although I still have occasional non-migraine headaches I can't remember the last time I had a migraine.

Risks for Women Who Are On the Pill and Suffer From Migraines

Women on the Pill are at increased risk of stroke. The risk of stroke in migraine patients appears to be higher in women who are on the Pill, have high blood pressure, and/or smoke. This is particularly true with the older high-dose oral contraceptives. The best advice for women who have migraines and want to use oral contraceptives is to use the lowest effective dose of estrogen because the risk appears to be estrogen-related, rather than progestin-related.

Is There a Cure for Migraines?

Not yet. But there is hope for effective relief and a significant reduction in the severity and number of migraine headaches you suffer. New research suggests everything from meditation to marijuana can help alleviate the pain.

But the first step is to get an accurate diagnosis from your physician. Only about half of migraine sufferers are diagnosed, and even fewer than that receive proper treatment, according to the American Migraine Study II.

For more information on the onset of migraines, be sure to read Migraine Triggers.

Sources:

Migraine Information. NINDS. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/migraine/migraine.htm. Accessed 08/24/2009.

Rebecca Erwin Wells, Rebecca Burch, Randall H. Paulsen. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 2014; 1484-95.

Danielle Rhyne, Sarah Anderson, Margaret Gedde. Pharmacotherapy, January 2016.

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