Can Migraines Cause Permanent Damage?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 26, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

It's no secret: Migraine headaches hurt. And it's not just a little discomfort. If you deal with them on a regular basis, you've probably wondered if they might affect you long-term. Could your migraine be changing your brain?

The short answer is yes. Chronic migraine make a difference in how your brain looks and acts over time. But with the right treatment, you may be able to tame and even reverse the changes in your brain brought on by migraine attacks.

Your Brain on Migraine Pain

Let's get the big worry out of the way: Do migraine headaches kill brain cells? "For the vast majority of migraines, and the vast majority of people with migraine, no," says K.C. Brennan, MD, a headache researcher at the University of Utah.

In certain cases, a migraine may come with a complication that doctors call migrainous infarction, which can lead to a stroke. In this case, brain cells die because the stroke cuts off their blood supply. This is very serious but also very rare. "You're more likely to be struck by lightning," Brennan says.

Sometimes after the worst pain of a migraine is over, you might feel like your brain is "off." You may have trouble doing things you normally do for a few hours, or sometimes for as long as a couple of days. You might hear this called a "migraine hangover" or the "postdrome phase" of a migraine. It can cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Problems remembering things
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Stiff neck
  • Mood changes

But these symptoms are temporary.

How Migraines Shape Your Brain

Your brain is an organ that has "plasticity." That means it changes and forms new pathways. It's how you survive, grow, adapt, and work.

These brain changes can happen because of disease or pain, but they can also happen as a result of positive things, too. For example, Brennan says, the part of the brain that's connected with a pianist's hands will thicken as she trains and becomes more skilled.

When you have chronic migraine, however, your brain can start making pathways that encourage pain.

"Studies show a dysfunctional learning process in the brain in migraine and in other pain conditions," Brennan says. "The brain learns to produce and perpetuate pain." In other words, your migraine can teach your brain that pain is normal, so your brain changes to help pain happen more often.

Take heart -- your brain can "unlearn" what your migraine is teaching it. But it's not a quick fix.

"This isn't an instant 'be healed!' process," Brennan says. Finding a doctor who can treat all of your symptoms, with the right medications and procedures, along with good exercise, diet, and -- most importantly -- mental health care, is the key to retraining those pathways.

Migraines and Your Long-Term Health

While it's good news that you can reroute your brain, it's also important to be aware of the other ways chronic migraine -- and how you deal with it -- might affect your well-being.

For some people, when mental and physical pain come together, it can become overwhelming. Brennan calls it the "pain hole."

Don't let migraine take over the happy and productive parts of your life. If you find that you start to feel depressed, anxious, or are losing sleep or always stressed out, tell your doctor. Working with a therapist and getting support -- along with good medical care for the migraines themselves -- should help keep you well.

Show Sources


NEJM Journal Watch: "The Postdrome Phase of Migraine."

Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: "Brain Plasticity and Behaviour in the Developing Brain."

Current Opinion in Neurology: "Migraine Changes the Brain -- Neuroimaging Makes Its Mark."

K.C. Brennan, MD, assistant professor and division chief for translational neuroscience, department of neurology, University of Utah.

Neurology: "Migraine and structural changes in the brain."

Cedars-Sinai: "Migrainous Stroke."

Medscape: "Understanding the Patient With Migraine: The Evolution From Episodic Headache to Chronic Neurologic Disease. A Proposed Classification of Patients With Headache."

Migraine Research Foundation: "Migraine Facts."

National Headache Foundation: "Responsible Use of Opioids."

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