Migraines linked to heart problems
1st February 2018 – People who experience migraines may be at a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and an irregular heartbeat, researchers say.
Although the absolute risk was low, the study, published in BMJ Open, says "migraine should be considered a potent and persistent risk factor for most cardiovascular diseases in both men and women".
Migraine: A neurological condition
A migraine is a severe headache that can also affect other parts of the body. Symptoms can include a throbbing pain in the front or side of the head, visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting.
Each migraine can last from 4 hours to 3 days.
Migraines are common, affecting around 1 in 5 women and around 1 in every 15 men in the UK.
Previous studies have found associations between migraines and stroke and heart attacks, particularly among women. However, no established link has been observed between migraines and other heart conditions.
So, researches from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark and Stanford University in the US collected data from 51,032 people with a history of migraines and 510,320 people from the general population. This allowed them to match each person with migraine to 10 people without the condition.
The average age for being diagnosed with migraine was 35 years, and 71% of participants were women.
Over the course of 19 years, the researchers found a link between migraines and heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias.
For instance, for every 1,000 patients, 25 patients with migraine had a heart attack compared with 17 migraine free patients. There were 45 patients with migraine who had a stroke compared with 25 patients who did not have migraines.
The association was stronger for women and for those with migraine who also experienced aura – a warning sign of migraine onset involving seeing flashing lights, blind spots and zig-zag patterns.
The study authors point out that the observational nature of their investigation means they are unable to prove cause and effect.
Why might there be a link?
They say a possible reason why cardiovascular problems are more common might be the anti-inflammatory medications frequently taken by migraine patients that have been linked to heart problems. Lower levels of physical activity in people with migraine might make them more prone to blood clots, they say.
The authors point out that current guidelines do not recommend the use of anti-clotting drugs such as aspirin to treat migraine but call on clinicians to "consider whether patients at particularly high risk of cardiovascular diseases would benefit from anticoagulant treatment".
In an editorial in the same journal, Professor Tobias Kurth from the Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany, and colleagues, write: "We now have plenty of evidence that migraine should be taken seriously as a strong cardiovascular risk marker," adding that "action to reduce risk is long overdue".
Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, comments in an emailed statement: "We know that, in women, there is already an association between migraines and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. So, these findings, which suggest this link could be extended to men, as well as to other conditions like irregular heartbeats, provide an interesting new observation.
"However, more research would be needed to determine any firm conclusions around cause and effect as other factors, like how physically active participants were, could have come into play."