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Could Your Migraines Signal Uncontrolled Asthma?

Asthma and migraines tend to run in families, but are the two conditions linked? Yes, say some asthma specialists.
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In the doctor’s office, it’s a familiar combination: a patient with both asthma and migraine.

Each disease tends to run in families, but are the two conditions also linked? If so, once a person gains better control of asthma symptoms, might the excruciating headaches ease, too?

Headache specialist Roger K. Cady, MD, believes so. “I would certainly say from my clinical practice that controlling either of those will help the other,” he says. Cady, founder of the Headache Care Center in Springfield, Missouri, treats many patients, including children, who have a combination of asthma, allergies and migraine. “It’s quite common in my practice,” he says.

Dennis K. Ledford, MD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of  South Florida College of Medicine, agrees that better asthma control could ease migraines.

Although researchers haven’t proven for sure that asthma attacks can prompt migraines, many patients believe that they get “asthma headaches,” and Ledford offers one possible explanation: “Asthma’s stressful, and stress is one of the provocateurs of migraine.”

“But keep in mind that asthma’s very treatable,” he says. “Even though [asthma] makes you very anxious and uncomfortable when it happens, it’s important to understand that it is controllable. Once you know how to control it, you can limit that stress in your life and reduce your occurrence of migraine.”

How Are Asthma and Migraine Linked?

Scientists have found some intriguing links between asthma and migraine. For example, one large British study found that people with migraine were 1.59 times more likely to develop asthma than counterparts without migraine.  Other research has shown that children with asthma were 5.5 times more likely than non-asthmatic children to have a parent with migraine.

How to explain? The British researchers offered one theory: “A shared functional abnormality of smooth muscle in blood vessels and airways offers a plausible explanation for this link.”

People with asthma or migraines or both conditions might have inherited hypersensitivities, Cady says. Those with asthma may have inherited an over-reactive respiratory system; those with migraine may have inherited an over-reactive nervous system.

There are other similarities. Asthma and migraine share many inflammatory chemicals that are released during an attack, Cady says. “There’s a host of common neurotransmitters that are shared here,” he says, including calcitonin gene-related peptide, histamines and cytokines. “Those are names for inflammatory chemicals that get activated both during asthma and during migraine,” he says.

Migraine or Sinus Headache?

Often, asthma patients believe that their headaches are sinus-related, Cady says, when in fact, the pain actually stems from migraines. “Migraine is many times the great masquerader,” he says. “You get pain around the face and eye and in the temple area. And then you get nasal congestion, kind of a clear, runny nose. It’s very easy to think, well, this is my sinuses acting up.”

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