Complications of Migraines

A migraine is more than just a whopper of a headache. It’s a sudden bout of throbbing pain that can last for several hours or several days. You usually have it on one side of your head. Some people get migraines once in a while, but others deal with repeated episodes.

Migraines come in two main types -- with or without aura -- and tend to bring on other symptoms. These complications can be serious enough to send you to the hospital or leave you simply uncomfortable or queasy.

Status Migrainosus

It’s Latin for a migraine that just won’t go away. Most migraines usually linger between 4 and 72 hours. Status migrainosus, on the other hand, is a relentless attack that lasts for more than 3 days. It can leave you feeling drained or even disabled. The pain and nausea can keep you from getting enough sleep or make you dehydrated from throwing up. You may need care at the hospital. This type of migraine often comes on after you take too much headache medication.

Migrainous Infarction

Also called a migrainous stroke, this is a rare complication that happens mostly in younger women. Blood vessels to the brain can get narrowed and cut off the oxygen supply. A migrainous stroke can hit suddenly and is an emergency. It always happens with an aura, a set of unusual sensations like flashes of light, blind spots, and tingling hands or face.

Women under 45 who smoke and take birth control pills are most likely to have a stroke with a migraine.

Persistent Aura Without Infarction

One in four people with migraines can have aura. But sometimes it lingers for more than a week after an attack. Rarely, you can have aura and symptoms like trouble breathing and numbness for months or even years.

The signs can seem close to those of a stroke, or bleeding in the brain, but without any actual bleeding. Infarction is another word for stroke.

Migraine-Triggered Seizure

This rare case can look like an epileptic seizure. It happens during or soon after a migraine with aura. Epilepsy and migraine sometimes go together. But researchers don’t fully understand why.

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Other Complications

Migraines can lead to other health issues. They include:

Depression and anxiety. People who have migraines are much more likely to also have these two conditions than others. That may happen because of the headaches, or because depression or anxiety leads to migraines.

Vertigo . It makes you feel dizzy, or like you’re spinning and your balance is off. Vertigo happens more often during migraines in people who are prone to motion sickness.

Sleeplessness. The pain and discomfort of migraines can keep you from falling or staying asleep. You also may wake up too early or don’t feel refreshed. Insomnia is worse in people who get severe migraines and more often.

Nausea and vomiting . These are common migraine symptoms. Reasons may have to do with the brain chemical serotonin, aka the “feel-good” hormone. People who get migraines may have low serotonin levels, which researchers suspect is linked to motion sickness and symptoms like nausea.

Serotonin syndrome . Drugs called triptans can treat migraine attacks, but you shouldn’t take them every day. They can interact with other medications, like common antidepressants, that raise your serotonin levels. That can cause serious complications like agitation, confusion, diarrhea, twitchy muscles, and a racing heart.

Stomach problems. You can take over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or ibuprofen for migraines. But they and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause ulcers, stomach pain, or bleeding if you take too much or for too long.

Rebound headaches . This is another medication-related complication. Some migraine meds -- particularly ones that have caffeine (ergot) -- can worsen your headache. So can acetaminophen, combination pain relievers such as Excedrin, and sleeping pills when taken too often.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on April 20, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine,” “Serotonin syndrome,” “Migraine with aura,” “Rebound headaches.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Migraine Information Page,” “Headache: Hope Through Research.”

Neurology: “Clinical and MRI characteristics of acute migrainous infarction,” “Both migraine and motion sickness may be due to low brain levels of serotonin.”

Cedars-Sinai: “Migrainous Stroke.”

 American Migraine Foundation: “Migraine and Aura,” “Medication Overuse Headache,” “Anxiety and Depression,” “Sleep, Insomnia, and Migraine,” “Migraine Associated Vertigo.”

International Headache Society: “HIS Classification ICHD-3: Migraine.”

Autopsy Case Reports: “Migrainous Infarction: A Rare and Often Overlooked Diagnosis.”

International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition: “Migraine.”

Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports: “Migralepsy: A Borderland of Wavy Lines.”

The New England Journal of Medicine: “Correspondence: Serotonin Syndrome Associated with Triptan Monotherapy.”

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