According to the National Headache Foundation, women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men. Of those women migraineurs, 60% will also suffer menstrual migraines, sometimes called hormone-related migraines. “Menstrual Migraines” (Oxford University Press; 2008) places this 60% at 12 million women just in America alone.
Menstrual migraines can happen anywhere from two days before to three days after menstruation begins. It is unknown exactly why anyone gets a migraine, let alone why women get menstrual migraines. The leading theory is that a change in a woman’s estrogen levels triggers a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and this triggers the migraine. But why this happens to some women and not all women is unknown. It is also unknown why some women get migraines before their flow starts while other have during the course of their bleeding.
This writer has been suffering from migraines since she was a child. I first began menstruating one month before my tenth birthday. Oh, lucky me. Although I do not remember if I suffered a menstrual migraine as a child, I always seemed to have headaches and so considered head pain just a normal part of life until I was 24.
It was then I had such a bad migraine with aura that my doctor at the time wondered if I was having a brain aneurysm. I have been struggling with migraines, barometric pressure headaches and sinus headaches ever since. I’m also a survivor of domestic violence but so far no brain or skull damage has been discovered.
After my worst migraine ever at age 24, I would get migraines several times a month. It wasn’t until years later when I was homeless that I learned to keep a headache diary. Well, it was something to do while I was homeless. It was then I noted that I always had a migraine one or two days before my bleeding started.
How This Helped
Although I couldn’t stop the migraines from arriving each month, I could anticipate when a migraine may occur. Those were days I wouldn’t go anywhere without medication. At the first sign of a migraine (which for me includes pressure on one side of the head and sudden sensitivity to light and noise) I popped the pills. Sometimes I could cut the migraine off before it got rolling. But mostly I can at least cut down on the severity of the pain and nausea.
I also try not to travel on days I know my menstrual migraine may hit. Traveling is stressful enough without having to worry about a migraine.
If I can catch the migraine at the first signs and am able to lie down for a few minutes, I can often chase it away with plain acetaminophen (paracetamol.) But if that does not work, I have to take a very expensive generic medication called sumatriptan. I can often get back to work in less than two hours after taking sumatriptan. Unfortunately, it’s obscenely expensive.
I also take daily preventative medication to prevent any type of migraine, since I can get migraines for many reasons, such as for lack of sleep or caffeine withdrawal. I take a calcium-channel blocker called verapamil off-label three times a day. This has helped to reduce all of the other reasons I get migraines, but the only type of migraine it does not effect is my pre-menstrual migraine.
The good news is that many women with menstrual migraines stop having them during their menopause or after they have an ovo-hysterectomy. Well, at least that’s something to look forward to about getting old.
“Migraines For Dummies.” Diane Stafford & Jennifer Shoquist, MD. Wiley Publishing; 2003.
“Menstrual Migraines.” Susan Hutchinson, et al. Oxford University Press; 2008.
National Headache Foundation. “Menstrually Related Migraine.” http://www.headaches.org/education/Headache_Topic_Sheets/Menstrual_Migraine