Migraine and Stroke

About 1 in 3 people with migraine also have what is called aura. Aura is a series of changes to the senses, such as seeing spots or feeling tingling on the face. People who have migraine with aura have a higher risk of stroke.1,2

A stroke happens when something (like a blood clot) blocks blood supply to part of the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. People with migraine are more likely to have the type of stroke caused by a block in a blood vessel. This is also called an ischemic stroke.3

The American Migraine Foundation reports that of the 800,000 strokes people had each year in the United States, only 2,000 to 3,000 were linked to migraine. Still, women who have migraine with aura face up to double the normal risk of stroke.4

Is it a migraine or a stroke?

It can be easy to confuse the symptoms of a stroke with migraine, especially some types of migraine with aura. Even doctors may have a hard time diagnosing which condition someone has. Both conditions can cause changes in vision, head pain, or strange physical sensations.

However, there are differences. In migraine with aura, the visual changes keep moving, while with a stroke the vision problems tend to stay still. Another difference is that migraine symptoms tend to come on slowly. With stroke, the key word is “sudden,” because the symptoms appear quickly.

A stroke can cause lasting, long-term damage, so it is important to get help medical help right away if you have these symptoms:5

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in any part of the body, especially if it happens on 1 side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or problems understanding speech
  • Sudden problems seeing in 1 or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Your migraines suddenly happen more often
  • Your migraine pain suddenly becomes more severe

If these symptoms go away within minutes, it may have been what is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is a specific type of stroke. A TIA can be a warning of a future stroke.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, even if they go away quickly, call 911 right away. The best treatments for stroke need to start within 3 hours of when symptoms first appeared. Any delays can lead to permanent damage to your health.5

Reducing your risk of stroke

It is alarming to hear that migraine with aura comes with a higher risk of such a serious condition, but you can take steps to reduce your risk. These steps include:4

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Not smoking, or stopping smoking
  • Not abusing alcohol
  • Controlling weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar
  • Avoiding certain birth control pills that contain estrogen, if possible

It is also important to follow the general recommendations to prevent and treat migraine. This includes:1

  • Seeing your doctor regularly to make sure your migraine treatment plan is working for you
  • Taking a preventive drug to stop the migraines before they happen
  • Finding and controlling your triggers through lifestyle changes
  • Trying cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, or meditation to manage stress

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: October 2020