If you’re a woman who gets migraines, you may have noticed they’re likely to hit either just before your period or right after. This headache is called menstrual migraine.
They’re tied to changes in hormone levels just before your period starts. Your levels of estrogen, as well as progesterone, drop right before the start of your period. That’s when migraines are most likely.
As early as 1966, researchers noticed that migraines may be worse for women who take birth control pills, especially ones with high doses of estrogen. Most forms work this way: You take pills that mix the two hormones for 3 weeks. For the week of your period, you might take placebo pills or no pill at all. That sudden drop of estrogen can also lead to migraines. Talk to your doctor about pills with low amounts of estrogen or progesterone only. They cause fewer side effects.
Hormone replacement therapy, a type of medication many women use during menopause to control hormone levels, can also trigger migraines.
A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen or naproxen may be enough to stop a menstrual migraine. Your doctor can prescribe stronger NSAIDs. Many treat migraine symptoms as well as period cramps.
Drugs called triptans, which treat migraines and cluster headaches, can also treat menstrual migraine. They affect the release of certain brain chemicals and block pain pathways in your brain.
You'll probably need to take medicine 1 to 2 days before your period starts until it's over. Some women need to take both a triptan and an NSAID.
Some birth control methods, like pills, patches, or vaginal rings, can help cut the number or the severity of menstrual migraines. You may need to try different types with different combinations and doses of hormones to find what works for you. Or your doctor may suggest using birth control continuously for a while, without a break for a period, to avoid headaches.
But if you have migraine with aura, you shouldn't use hormonal birth control because of a greater likelihood of strokes. Even if you don't have auras, your doctor may not want to prescribe birth control if you're over 35 and you smoke, have high blood pressure or cholesterol, are more than a little overweight, or have diabetes.
Naproxen and the triptans most often used to treat menstrual migraine -- frovatriptan (Frova), naratriptan (Amerge), and zolmitriptan (Zomig) -- may also help prevent them. General migraine prevention includes medications that are usually used to treat other conditions like high blood pressure and seizures. Nonmedical options include the supplement butterbur, magnesium supplements, and even acupuncture.
It's also a good idea to limit how much salt you eat before your period starts so your body doesn't hang on to water in your tissues, which could create extra pressure. Your doctor can prescribe "water pills" (diuretics) to help you pee out extra fluid and bring down swelling if it's a problem.
If nothing else works, leuprolide acetate (Lupron) drops estrogen levels. But there can be unpleasant side effects.
These hormone-driven migraines often go away while you're pregnant. You might still get headaches during your first trimester, but they usually stop after that.
Avoid taking any medicine for your migraines during pregnancy. You might try a mild pain reliever, like acetaminophen, but check with your doctor to make sure it's safe for you before you take it.
For many women, migraine get better once their periods have finally stopped.
If you're on estrogen replacement therapy and your migraines get worse, your doctor may lower the dose, prescribe it in a different form, or tell you to stop it altogether.
An estrogen patch can keep levels of the hormone steadier, so you're less likely to have bad migraines.