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Migraine and Brain Lesions

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 25, 2020

Migraines cause serious pain. If you get them, you’ve probably wondered if they have a lasting effect on your brain. Research suggests that the answer is yes. Migraines can cause lesions, which are areas of damage to the brain.

What Are Brain Lesions?

They’re areas of injured or damaged tissue. They show up on brain scans, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as light or dark spots that don’t look like healthy tissue.

Brain lesions can be small or large. Some may not cause any symptoms, while serious ones can be life-threatening.

Do Migraines Cause Brain Lesions?

Studies show that having migraines can make you more likely to get brain lesions. These painful headaches are linked to two main types of lesions:

  • White matter lesions. White matter is tissue deep in the brain. It’s made up of mostly nerves, and it plays a big role in your emotions. Getting small white matter lesions is a normal part of aging. Strokes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease can also cause them. Because they show up on scans as bright white spots, they’re sometimes called white matter hyperintensities.
  • Infarct-like lesions. Your brain needs oxygen and nutrients. If blood flow is restricted or stopped, brain cells die. A small area of dead tissue is called an infarct. For people with migraines, these infarct-like lesions are silent, which means they don’t have any symptoms. In older adults, these lesions are tied to the risk of dementia, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in people who have migraines.

A review of studies found that people who got migraines were more likely to have white matter and infarct-like lesions than those who didn’t. Those who got migraines with aura, or visual symptoms like blind spots, changes in vision, or flashes of light, had the biggest risk.

Getting frequent migraine attacks or a longer history of migraines also raises your chances of getting lesions. Women are more likely to get white matter lesions.

What’s the Link Between Migraines and Brain Lesions?

Experts aren’t sure why migraines are linked with brain lesions. But these things may play a role:

  • Blood clots and shortages. Migraine attacks may lower blood flow and pressure. They can also cause blood vessels to shrink. This sets the stage for tiny blood clots or a lack of blood to certain areas of the brain.
  • Tissue damage. During a migraine, the nerves in your brain kind of go haywire. They may work overtime and become inflamed.
  • Heart problems. Migraines are linked to two heart conditions: Patent foramen ovale is a hole in the heart. Mitral valve prolapse is when heart valves don’t close fully, which may can cause a small leak. Both issues may lead to lesions.

How Do These Brain Lesions Affect Your Health?

If you have migraines, do you need to get regular brain scans? Experts say no. The odds that there’s a problem is less than 1 in 1,000.

Brain lesions don’t appear to cause any long-term damage. Two large studies found people with migraines didn’t have any more changes to their brain function or thinking than those who don’t get the headaches.

One study concluded these lesions don’t affect your brain health. The scientists used scans to track lesions over 9 years. They found those who had more brain lesions scored no differently on memory, attention, or speed tests.

Can You Prevent Brain Lesions?

Scientists are still looking for ways to protect against brain lesions. They think keeping your migraines in check can help. Having frequent attacks is linked with a higher risk of lesions, so fending off migraines or treating them early on may help lower your risk. These simple steps could help:

  • Talk to your doctor. You may need to take medicine or get treatments, like Botox injections, to head off migraines.
  • Know your triggers. Bright lights, weather changes, and certain foods could set off your migraines. Once you know your triggers, you can learn to avoid them.
  • Keep a lid on stress. Make time to unwind and do things you enjoy every day.
  • Get moving. Exercise eases tension and boosts blood flow to the brain, which can help stave off headaches. Research also shows that physical activity may prevent white matter lesions.
  • Practice good sleep habits. A bad night could set off an attack. Try to go to bed and wake up at around the same time.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Migraine Foundation: “Migraine and Brain Lesions.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Brain Lesions.”

Mayo Clinic: “Brain Lesions,” “Migraine,” “Migraine with Aura,” “Migraines: Simple steps to head off the pain,” “Patent foramen ovale.”

Neurology: “Migraine and Structural Changes in the Brain,” “Physical Activity, Motor Function, and White Matter Hyperintensity Burden in Healthy Older Adults.”

Dana Foundation: “Why the White Brain Matters.”

Radboud University Medical Center: “Segmentation and Quantification of White Matter Lesions.”

Journal of the American Heart Association: “What are White Matter Hyperintensities Made of? Relevance to Vascular Cognitive Impairment.”

Columbia University Department of Neurology: “Overview of Stroke.”

American Stroke Association: “Silent Stroke.”

Cephalagia: “Migraine is Associated with an Increased Risk of Deep White Matter Lesions, Subclinical Posterior Circulation Infarcts, and Brain Iron Accumulation.”

JAMA: “Migraine as a Risk Factor for Subclinical Brain Lesions.”

American Heart Association: “Problem: Mitral Valve Prolapse.”

American Headache Society: “Migraine and Brain Lesions: Q&A with Dr. Peter Goadsby.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “New ways to manage migraines.”

Preventive Medicine Reports: “Physical Activity and White Matter Hyperintensities: A Systematic Review of Quantitative Studies.”

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