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Migraines with aura tied to stroke risk

Bryn Mawr Hospital August 18, 2016 General Wellness

Migraine sufferers are often all too familiar with the debilitating pain that accompanies a migraine attack. It is pain that prevents you from enjoying time with family and friends, interferes with work, and can be worsened by environmental factors like light, weather, and diet. But migraine factors can do more than cause pain—they may also be increasing your stroke risk, too.

Research presented at the American Stroke Association’s 2016 International Stroke Conference found that individuals who experienced migraines with aura were more likely to suffer a clot-based stroke than those who did not experience migraines with aura.

Migraines with aura are identified as headaches that are accompanied by visual disturbances, like flashing or swirling lights, zigzag patterns, blind spots, or temporary loss of vision.

“With the knowledge that migraine with aura can increase stroke risk, it’s increasingly important for patients to report changes in vision, speech, or weakness that accompany a migraine to their doctor, and for doctors to educate patients on this risk factor,” says Michelle J. Smith, MD, vascular neurosurgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health Neurosurgery, a member of Jefferson Neuroscience Network.

Migraines and stroke risk in women

Although stroke occurs most often in men, stroke-related deaths are more common in women. Migraines, too, tend to occur more often in women. For this reason, it’s especially important for women to understand the link between migraine with aura and stroke risk.

“Women who experienced migraine with aura were more than two times more likely to suffer a stroke as a result of a blood clot in the heart or brain,” says Dr. Smith.

That number was even greater for women who were taking or had taken an estrogen-based medication, like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.

Take control of your stroke risk

If you suffer migraines with aura, how can you keep your stroke risk under control? Dr. Smith emphasizes the importance of a healthy lifestyle and taking charge of risk factors you can control.

“Smoking, high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, and poor diet are all manageable risk factors for stroke,” she says. “You may not be able to stop your migraines, but you can practice healthy behaviors and work with your doctor to control any additional risk factors.”

If you are taking birth control or interested in hormone replacement therapy, talk to your doctor about whether or not these treatments are right for you. After a discussion of your stroke risk factors and health history, they can help determine whether these treatments are right for you, or if you should pursue other options.

Regardless of your stroke risk, it’s also important to recognize the signs of a stroke.

“An easy way to identify a stroke is to remember to think F.A.S.T—Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time to call 911. It’s a reminder to act quickly, if you notice these symptoms in yourself or in another person because life-saving treatments for stroke are time dependent,” says Dr. Smith.

The Main Line Health Stroke Program provides a comprehensive continuum of high-quality stroke care that includes community education, assessment and stroke-prevention efforts, early identification and acute-treatment strategies, rehabilitation, and secondary-stroke prevention efforts. Learn more about our stroke services on our website.