The coming of menopause is feared by many women often just as much for the symptoms it brings with it as for the end of fertility that it brings. Everything from hot flashes and mood swings to sexual issues plague women during the often-unpleasant beginning of the life stage and new research out this week has added worse migraines to that list. While many women in the past had noticed worsening headaches during this biological milestone, no research until now had put any data behind those claims. The researchers hope their findings can help women with migraines find new ways to ease their symptoms.
Why does menopause happen?
Menopause is a natural biological process that happens in all women and signals the end of fertility. A woman is born with a fixed number of eggs in both of her ovaries, which slowly decline over time with menstruation and other biological stages in life. Since the number of eggs is limited, women eventually run low and then run out of eggs to ovulate. As this happens, it leads to a variety of hormonal shifts as the body adapts to losing the menstrual cycle is has lived by for so long. A major contributor to these changes is the drop in estrogen levels that occurs once periods make their disappearance, which is one reason why doctors sometimes prescribe estrogen pills for a short period of time when symptoms are worst.
What symptoms are usually associated with menopause?
Women report experiencing a variety of symptoms during the beginning stages of menopause (called perimenopause) as the body slowly stops ovulating. The truth of the matter is that no woman going through the early stages of menopause has exactly the same list of symptoms. Many experience hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, weight changes, dry skin, and vaginal dryness, but some may experience some of these often and others not at all. Headaches are also an often-reported symptom, but no research had been done to see whether migraine headaches actually got worse during menopause. The research team wanted to see if they could find any patterns in how often headaches happen as women approach and then go through menopause.
How did the researchers study migraines?
The research team used a large data set from another study called the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention (AMPP) study that followed the migraine symptoms of more than 20,000 people over age 12 in the U.S. Within that data set, individuals had reported both what their headache symptoms were and where they were in their menstrual cycle. This meant that the researchers could look at a variety of women at different ages in different parts of their reproductive life to see if headaches were more frequent in older women going through menopause compared to women done with, close to, or still years from menopause. When they searched through the data, they found 4,500 women who were between the ages of 35 and 65 who had migraines and had data on their menstrual cycles and their information was used for the analysis.
What did the team find out?
The researchers found that women going through perimenopause seemed to be more likely to have migraine headaches than younger women who weren’t going through these early stages of menopause. The study couldn’t say whether or not migraines happened more often for individual people since the data set only caught women at one point in time. But the research did show that going through the early stages of menopause made you about 60 percent more likely to have migraines if you’d suffered from them in the past. The team also found indications that some women might start to experience more frequent headaches after going through menopause, but the team couldn’t determine from the data which groups might be more likely to have this happen to them to and why it might be happening.
How does this apply to me?
If you suffer from migraines and have noticed that they’ve become worse or more frequent during menopause, this study indicates it’s definitely not all in your head. Fortunately, as the authors point out, that also means there’s a migraine trigger in some of the changes taking place that you and your doctor might be able to address with medical therapies. Hormonal treatment, for example, has been shown to help with symptoms of menopause and is less likely to cause other health issues if it’s used for short periods of time when symptoms are worst. The key is to bring it up at the doctor’s office if it’s really bothering you so that you and your doctor can decide what the best next step might be for easing your headaches.