The risk of ischemic strokes
—the complete blockage of a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain—is more than two times greater in adults who have suffered migraine headaches than in those without migraines. This is the latest finding from a recent study from Johns Hopkins, presented at the 2009 scientific sessions of the American Heart Association. The study also found that the risk is even greater among those whose attacks are preceded or accompanied by an aura, such as flickering zig-zag lines that may progress to temporary blind spots in their field of vision.
The once popular theory that migraines were caused by rapid changes in brain blood vessels might have explained the relationship between migraine and ischemic strokes. However, that theory is no longer considered correct, and there is still no scientific understanding of why people with migraine headaches should have a higher risk of strokes.
What migraine sufferers can do to lessen the risks of stroke
Millions of adults in the U.S. have migraine headaches—about 17 percent of women and 6 percent of men have migraine attacks every year. What can they do to reduce their likelihood of having a stroke?
It's important to understand that, despite the possible severity of the symptoms, the strokes do not occur during migraine attacks. Rather, migraine is a long-term risk for strokes. So, people with migraines should pay special attention to measures that lessen their likelihood of having a stroke:
- Stop smoking
- Control blood pressure
- Consider taking a daily aspirin, if approved by your doctor
- Women should ask their doctor whether they should stop taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement after the menopause.
Although a number of medications may decrease the frequency of migraine attacks, there is no information on whether reducing the number of attacks will also lower the risk of stroke. However, treating high blood pressure with a beta blocker, an ACE inhibitor, or an ARB (angiotensin II receptor blocker) may yield double benefits since studies have shown these agents prevent or reduce the severity of migraine attacks in many people.