I have a brain tumor may be the most logical worry when you’re suffering from a migraine—the pain can feel like your head is literally going to explode. But a new study says migraines may indicate problems a little lower down: in your heart.
Researchers looked at data from over 17,531 women over 20 years and found that women who get recurring migraines—about 15 percent of the population—were far more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event like a stroke or heart attack. Worse, migraines nearly doubled a woman’s risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The study was published in the BMJ.
While the reasons behind the correlation aren’t totally clear yet, one theory is that it has to do with progesterone, one of the two hormones that regulate the female menstrual cycle. Increased progesterone has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and many women use hormonal treatments (like birth control) for their migraines since the headaches often follow their menstrual cycles. A second possibility is that many popular migraine medications are “vasoconstrictors,” meaning they cause the blood vessels to tighten up in order to reduce headache pain; consistently shrinking your blood vessels may increase the risk of deadly blockages.
The researchers acknowledge the need for further research into what causes migraines to be a risk factor for heart disease but say that we can be reasonably sure there is a link. “More than 20 years of follow-up indicate a consistent link between migraine and cardiovascular disease events, including cardiovascular mortality,” they concluded.
Their recommendation? If you suffer from migraines, make sure to get your heart regularly checked.