Migraines and risk of stroke
Reviewed by our clinical team
Migraines are an often debilitating condition that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, with symptoms ranging from severe headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, to nausea and more.
While migraines themselves are not typically life-threatening, there is some evidence to suggest that those who experience a particular kind of migraine (migraine with aura) might be twice as likely to experience a stroke in their lifetime.
In this article, we’ll look at the relationship between migraines and stroke, including the symptoms to watch for and the potential risk factors. We'll also look at how migraines are diagnosed and treated, and what steps you can take to reduce your risk of both migraines and stroke.
What is a migraine?
A migraine is a type of severe headache that is typically characterised by intense throbbing or pulsing head pain, nausea and vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines might also manifest with aura, where the person experiences visual disturbances, such as flashing lights or zigzag lines, or other sensory symptoms like tingling or numbness.
We don’t know exactly what causes migraines, but it’s thought to be related to changes in brain activity affecting nerve signals and blood vessels. Different people report different triggers, which can include stress, hormone changes, diet, and even the weather.
Although migraines, particularly chronic migraines, can be very disruptive and demoralising, they aren’t generally life-threatening.
What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted, either because of a blocked blood vessel (ischaemic stroke) or because of bleeding in the brain (haemorrhagic stroke). This interruption of blood flow causes cells in the brain to die, leading to paralysis, weakness, difficulty speaking and understanding speech, and more.
Strokes can be extremely serious and can have long-lasting effects on a person's health and quality of life. While some risk factors for stroke, such as age and family history, can't be controlled, there are some lifestyle factors that can increase or decrease a person's risk of stroke.
Are migraines a risk factor for stroke?
From what we know, migraines don’t cause strokes. However, some evidence suggests that those who experience migraines with aura (sensory symptoms such as flashing lights or blurred vision) might be at a higher risk of experiencing an ischaemic stroke during their lifetime.
This is especially true for women under 45 who have migraines with aura, use oral contraceptives, and smoke, or anyone who experiences migraine with aura for the first time after the age of 50. We don't know exactly why this is, but it's something to keep in mind. Overall, the risk of stroke is still generally considered to be low in people with migraines.
Managing risk of stroke in migraine
There are several factors that can increase a person's risk of both migraines and stroke. Some of the most common risk factors for both conditions include smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. Other risk factors for stroke include family history, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
If you have migraines and are concerned about strokes, there are several steps you can take to manage your general risk. The first step is working with your doctor to manage any underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. This may involve making lifestyle changes like improving your diet and increasing your physical activity or taking medication.
You should also aim to limit or avoid other things that increase your risk of strokes, like smoking and alcohol. Making these changes will not only reduce your risk of stroke but also improve your overall health and well-being.
Can migraine and stroke happen at the same time?
While migraines and stroke both affect the brain, it’s rare for them to occur at the same time. In some cases, people who experience migraines may also experience stroke-like symptoms, such as difficulty speaking or weakness on one side of the body. However, these symptoms are typically temporary.
It is possible for a person who has a history of migraines to also experience a stroke at some point in their life. This may be more likely in people who experience migraines with aura, particularly if they have other risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure.
If you experience any symptoms of stroke, like sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking or understanding speech or sudden changes in vision, you should call 999 immediately and get immediate medical attention.
Migraine or stroke?
It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between migraine and stroke, particularly if you experience migraines with aura or other stroke-like symptoms. However, there are some key differences between the two conditions that can help you tell them apart.
- Generally, migraines come on gradually and may be preceded by warning signs, such as visual disturbances or other sensory symptoms.
- The pain associated with migraines is typically throbbing or pulsing and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
- Strokes typically come on suddenly and cause more severe symptoms, such as sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking or understanding speech, and sudden changes in vision. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to call 999 immediately and get medical attention.
When migraine mimics stroke
In some cases, migraines can cause symptoms that mimic those of a stroke, such as difficulty speaking or weakness down one side. These migraines are known as hemiplegic migraines and they can be very frightening for those who experience them. However, these symptoms are typically temporary and will go away once the migraine has passed.
Migraine diagnosis and treatment
Migraine diagnosis typically involves a chat with the doctor and a review of your medical history and symptoms. Your doctor might recommend additional tests, like brain imaging or blood tests, to rule out other underlying conditions.
Once diagnosed, there are several treatment options available for migraines, including medication and lifestyle changes. You might also be asked to complete a migraine or headache relief diary, tracking your migraine attacks to identify triggers.
Via our Online Pharmacy, we offer a range of treatments for migraines, including:
Vydura contains the active ingredient rimegepant, which works by limiting the production of a pain chemical known as CGRP, which is thought to be involved in the triggering of migraines. It comes in the form of a wafer you put under your tongue and can be used both preventatively and during migraines to limit pain. Vydura is available through our online service here.
Sumatriptan works by narrowing blood vessels in the brain to limit the impact of migraines. It's available as a tablet through Online Doctor, and can be used in combination with other pain relief and anti-sickness medications for the best results. You can learn more about the effectiveness of sumatriptan here.
Rizatriptan is a type of triptan medication, like sumatriptan. It works by constricting blood vessels in the brain, helping alleviate migraine symptoms. Rizatriptan is available in tablet form through Online Doctor, and can be used alongside painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen as well as anti-sickness medication.
While migraines and stroke are both brain-related conditions, it’s rare for them to occur at the same time. However, if you experience migraine with aura you should speak to a doctor to rule out underlying conditions and identify your risk of stroke. If you experience other stroke-like symptoms you should get urgent medical attention and contact 999.
Overall, there are a number of ways to reduce your risk of stroke, including stopping smoking, lowering your blood pressure, losing weight, and exercising.
We offer a range of treatments and resources to help you manage your migraines and reduce your risk of stroke. This includes medication, lifestyle changes, and stress management techniques. Be sure to check out our tips to avoid migraine triggers, as well as our mental health and well-being advice for further guidance and support.
If you need more support or advice, speak to one of our GPs today.