Years ago, when she was in her early twenties and playing at a tournament, tennis champion Serena Williams had a sudden, painful headache that was so debilitating, it cost her a match and led to an early elimination — the first in her professional career. It was then that she realized that these excruciating headaches — these severe migraines — were caused by her monthly menstrual cycle.
Like Williams, approximately 60% to 70% of women experience migraines during their monthly menstrual cycle. This type of migraine is just one of many different types of headaches.
What are Menstrual Migraines?
A menstrual migraine is essentially an estrogen-withdrawal headache. These migraines, often referred to as hormonal headaches, occur when the female hormone estrogen decreases before a woman gets her monthly period.
Stress and tension also contribute to migraine symptoms. Williams, now 39, experienced this last year during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the stress of working long hours on her computer — engaging in video calls about her venture fund and fashion company — while raising an energetic toddler all trigged her migraine issue.
How Did Serena Williams Manage Her Migraines?
On the tennis court, Williams was used to just “playing through" the pain of menstrual migraines.
Last year, after identifying the specific pandemic-related triggers of her migraines, Williams was able to seek proper help. Her doctor prescribed Ubrelvy, a relatively new medication that blocks the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) protein believed to cause painful migraine attacks. After taking this pill for some time, Williams felt her migraine symptoms ease.
Now a spokesperson for Ubrelvy, Williams — a 23-time Grand Slam champion and four-time Olympian — has also learned not to overwork herself.
"I have really good boundaries now, so I know when I'm supposed to do things and what I'm not supposed to do things," she told People Magazine in April 2021. "Migraine(s) are attacks that I don't try to have".