Migraine Causes and Hormonal Changes in Women

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: November 2010

It is well known that women suffer from migraines three times as often as men. Migraines are often blamed on hormonal changes in women that occur during menarche, the beginning of an adolescent girl’s menstruation; during the monthly periods; during pregnancy; after pregnancy and during menopause.

How do hormones increase the likelihood of migraine?

Estrogen, the female hormone, has well-known effects on the way the brain functions. Estrogen, which is produced by the ovaries, also impacts how pain is perceived. So it makes sense that estrogen and changes in its production would play a role in the brain function and head pain of migraine attacks. Studies show that before puberty, boys and girls have a similar rate of migraines. After puberty, when estrogen production really kicks in, females then have triple the incidence of migraines.

What is menstrual migraine?

Some women experience migraines that are closely tied to their menstrual cycle. Roughly half of women with migraines believe their menstrual cycle trigger their attacks. These migraines, called menstrual migraines, can be divided into two sub-types:

  • Pure menstrual migraines typically occur two days before or three days into the menstrual cycle and do not occur at other times of the month.
  • Menstrually-related migraine may also occur at other times during the menstrual cycle.

Women with menstrual migraines are more likely to suffer from migraine without aura, are more severe, last longer and cause more disability than migraines that occur other times in the menstrual cycle. Menstrual migraines are sometimes difficult to diagnose because it is a challenge to determine if the migraines are truly tied to the menstrual cycle or if it is a coincidence.

As with all types of migraines, keeping a migraine journal is recommended to assist in learning each person’s pattern and triggers for migraine attacks.

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