If you're one of the 36 million Americans who suffer from migraines, you may see some headlines that concern you this week: Women who have migraines with aura (visual or sensory sensations, like flashes of light) may be more likely to experience heart attacks, says one new study, while another links the condition with a higher likelihood of blood clots for women on birth control. We've got the science behind the headlines.
The two studies, to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in March, looked at tens of thousands of women. The first one found that migraines with aura were the second strongest risk factor for heart attack and stroke in women 45 and up, ranking behind only high blood pressure. That means it beat out diabetes, obesity, smoking and family history.
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The second study was done on women with migraines who also take hormonal contraceptives. Women who got migraines with aura, the researchers found, were more likely to experience blood clots than those who had the headaches without aura. Also worth noting: Women who used newer forms of birth control (the patch, the ring or the newer pills such as Yaz and Yasmin) had a slightly higher risk than those who used older forms.
We ran this all by SELF's medical advisor, Harry Lodge, MD. Lodge says that scientists have known for a while that migraines, especially those with aura, are linked to an increased risk of heart problems; it's also common knowledge that contraceptives can increase any woman's risk for blood clots. The new preliminary studies, Lodge told us, both have plenty of design flaws, like using self-reported migraine data and not controlling for outside factors--and they're certainly no reason to freak out or ditch your birth control.
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"Migraines are vascular events, so it's easy to see how if there's a spasm in one blood vessel there may be spasms in others," says Lodge. "But if you are a migraine sufferer, you can reduce your risk for heart problems by addressing the factors you can change: quit smoking, exercise, lose weight, eat right."
If you're currently on birth control and you also have migraines, it's worth having a conversation with your doctor, Lodge adds--but it's important to keep in mind the health benefits of contraceptives, as well. (As in, you know, not getting pregnant when you don't want to.) "This doesn't change the game in any particular way," he says. "It's just another small modicum of risk you need to factor into your overall decision."
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