Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta report that women who have migraines accompanied by visual symptoms have a greater risk of stroke compared to women who do not have migraines. The findings will be presented February 3 at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in New Orleans.
“Our study found that women who have visual symptoms of lines or spots just before or during a migraine headache had a 25 percent increased risk of stroke compared to women who do not have a history of migraine,” explains Steven Kittner, M.D., a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a neurologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “But women in our study who experienced visual loss along with their migraine headaches had a 70 percent higher risk of stroke,” adds Dr. Kittner, who is also a researcher at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. The researchers found that women who had migraines without visual symptoms did not have an increased risk of stroke.
The study included 963 women between the ages of 15-49. More than half of them had suffered strokes. These women were part of the Stroke Prevention in Young Women Study that began in 1990 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and includes women who were treated at more than 50 hospitals in the Baltimore-Washington area.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 17 percent of women have migraine headaches, and 30 to 40 percent of women with migraines also have visual symptoms known as auras. Previous studies also have linked migraine to an increased risk of ischemic stroke, the type of stroke caused by a blockage of blood flow in the brain. But in this study, investigators wanted to know if particular symptoms associated with migraine could be linked to stroke risk.
“More research is needed to confirm these findings,” says Dr. Kittner. “However, our data suggest that women with migraines accompanied by visual symptoms may want to make lifestyle adjustments to reduce their risk for stroke.”
Doctors suggest women can lower the risk of stroke by quitting smoking, controlling their weight and discussing the use of oral contraceptives with their physicians. Dr. Kittner emphasizes that the overall incidence of stroke among young women is low - about one in 5,000 per year, so even though women with migraine and visual symptoms are at increased risk, that risk is still very low.
Migraine is the most common form of severe headache and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. These headaches usually last for several hours but can go on for days.
The Stroke Prevention in Young Women Study has been supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health; and the Medical Research Service, Department of Veterans Affairs.
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