Migraine and Stroke: Separating Fact from Fiction

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Migraine and Stroke: Separating Fact from Fiction

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. Each year more than 795,000 Americans have a stroke and 140,000 die from stroke despite the fact that around 80% of strokes are preventable. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about migraine and stroke that has been generating concern and even panic among some people.

The truth is, both migraine and stroke are neurovascular disorders, meaning that they occur in the brain. They also share similar symptoms, but each condition has its own set of symptoms that sets it apart. The causes are different as well. Where a stroke is caused by existing damage to the brain’s blood supply, it is believed that a migraine occurs when the cells in the brain don’t work properly. There is a link between the two, but we are cutting through the hype and misunderstandings to bring you the truth.

The truth about migraine and stroke.

Overall, the risk of someone who has migraines having a stroke are very minimal. Only migraine with aura has actually been linked to stroke. Studies show that people who have this type of migraine almost double their risk of ischemic stroke. However, it is more likely that a person will have a stroke because they engage in risky behaviors like smoking or have certain conditions like high blood pressure. The migraine connection is very minimal, mainly because the specific type of migraine linked to stroke is not very common.

The incidence of migraine related stroke is between 1.44/100,000 and 1.7/100,000 each year. Still, these figures represent any person who has a stroke and also has migraines, not only strokes where it is believed that the migraine itself was a cause or direct contributing factor. Migraines can also indirectly cause stroke; those are included in these figures as well.

The 2016 International Stroke Conference by the American Stroke Association explored the link between migraine and stroke with recent research that was presented there. According to the findings, patients who had migraine with aura were more than twice as likely to have an ischemic stroke than patients who did not have migraine with aura. The patients were also three times more likely to have a clot or mass form in the heart, dislodge, and travel to the brain, causing an ischemic stroke.

When migraine looks like stroke (Hemiplegic migraine).

Hemiplegic migraine symptoms often resemble a stroke. A person with hemiplegic migraine may experience decreased motor function, visual disturbances, even partial paralysis, leading them and others around them to believe they are having a stroke. However, this type of migraine does not leave any impairment once the attack is over. A stroke, on the other hand usually does leave the patient at least partially impaired.

A few other types of migraines can have a symptom or two that look like stroke symptoms. These too are nothing to fear. If you are unsure though, or if your symptoms have many of the same characteristics that stroke symptoms do, you should seek the advice of a medical professional immediately. Knowing the signs of stroke can help to allay your fears or confirm you are in trouble. Knowledge is a powerful weapon.

Know your symptoms.

Knowing your symptoms can help you better determine whether you have a migraine or if you are having a stroke. As always, though, if you are unsure or if your symptoms are concerning, it is better to seek immediate medical attention than wait to see what happens.

Symptoms of a stroke are:

  • Headache that is sudden and severe
  • Weakness or numbness in the body, often confined to one side
  • Inability or difficulty speaking or understanding when someone is talking to you
  • Visual disturbances can be in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden loss of coordination or balance, dizziness
  • Mental fog or confusion

Symptoms of Migraine are:

  • Pain that throbs or pulsates, often on one side (onset is usually gradual, but can be sudden)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Visual disturbances or blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Aura
Signs of stroke

What can you do to prevent stroke?

The American Heart Association recommends that people who get migraines with aura should see their doctor regularly so that he or she can assess your stroke risk factors and monitor them. It is estimated that around 80% of strokes are preventable by simply monitoring and treating stroke risk factors like smoking, stress, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, proper hydration, and adequate sleep.

Taking care of yourself and doing good things for your health will not only help prevent stroke but can also minimize the severity of your migraine attacks or even lessen their frequency. Chronic pain puts stress on the body, so any steps you can take to minimize the effects of your migraine can help with your stress level and overall health. Wear your migraine glasses, stay hydrated, don’t skip meals, and know your triggers so you can avoid them and hopefully have more pain free days. Every little bit helps.


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2 thoughts on “Migraine and Stroke: Separating Fact from Fiction

  1. Leslie says:

    I’ve had migraines that mimic a stroke and a heart attack. My neurologist explained to me that it’s nothing to worry about and that I did the right thing when I went to the ER each time. Once my migraine subsided it appeared to the ER staff that I was “faking” my symptoms which can be frustrating. I encourage anyone who is in doubt to error on the side of caution and not to be concerned about what others might think. I’m thankful I have a great neurologist that explains these things to me and reassured me that I had valid concerns.

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