A Migraine May Change Your Brain For Good

Although 37 million Americans suffer from the debilitating pain known as migraine headaches, and they have become all too familiar with the throbbing pain, nausea, light sensitivity, inability to work, and emotional stress involved, what they may not be aware of is that scientific research has shown that just one migraine headache may change your brain — permanently.

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Lead scientist and author Dr. Messoud Ashina, a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, published his study in the academic journal Neurology, and he says that a migraine leaves a structural change on the brain, a “mark” that may be permanent.

“Our review and meta-analysis study suggests that the disorder may permanently alter brain structure in multiple ways. Migraine affects about 10% to 15% of the general population and can cause a substantial personal, occupational and social burden. We hope that through more study, we can clarify the association of brain structure changes to attack frequency and length of the disease. We also want to find out how these lesions may influence brain function.”

Who is most at risk for throbbing unilateral pain on one side of the head? Women, who outnumber men three to one when it comes to migraines, although plenty of men get migraines, too. This discrepancy may be due to hormonal fluctuations that cause vascular changes in the head. For instance, some women only get migraines right before their menstrual cycle. For many, migraines are associated with aura — a term used to describe the warning that a migraine is about to take place. This may be flashes of light appearing before one’s eyes, smelling a scent that doesn’t exist, or being overly emotional (crying or laughing). Not everyone that suffers from migraines experience aura, but approximately 20 percent have experienced an aura before a migraine headache at least once.

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Wellcome trust employee Zoe Middleton poses behind an artwork entitled 'My Soul' by Katharine Dowson, which consists of a laser etched lead chrystal glass formation in the shape of a brain, and was created using the artists own MRI Scan, at Wellcome Collection on March 27, 2012 in London, England. The exhibit makes up part of the Wellcome Collection's major new exhibition, 'Brains' which includes slices of Einstein's brain, 3000 year old trepanned skulls, ancient Egyptian mummified brains and brains in jars, and opens to the public from March 29 June 17, 2012. [Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

According to CNN, the American Migraine Foundation says that migraines cost Americans plenty of money in lost work days and loss of productivity. This can be stressful on individuals, marriages, and workplaces. To confound the problem, there’s no definitive treatment that works well for everyone, but treatment and lost sick days cost Americans $20 million a year. For some people, a migraine may only last a few hours, for others, it may last for days. Some people even experience chronic migraines, a situation in which they have a headache for more days of the month than they don’t.

The study by Dr. Ashina focused on the results of Magnetic Resonance Imagining, or MRI. An MRI is able to detect subtle changes in brain tissue that an X-ray or CT scan may not. MRIs use tests that use a magnetic field and radio wave energy. Using MRI, Dr. Ashina looked at the records of migraine sufferers to see if they had an increased amount of brain lesions, white matter changes, or infarct-like areas (areas where tissue has died because not enough blood flow has occurred.)

According to the results of the study, Dr. Ashina found that the risk of white matter brain lesions increased 68 percent for those suffering migraines with aura, compared with non-migraine sufferers, but for those who had migraine without aura, only 34 percent had lesions. However, it was also noted that people who got frequent types of other headaches also had white matter changes. The question remained: did those white matter changes harm the individuals who had them?

Fortunately, scientists don’t believe so, although they aren’t sure what they may mean for the sufferer. Dr. Ashina said that although structural changes occurred, they found no evidence of harm to the migraine sufferer, and that more studies were needed. But, he said, there was no clear relationship between the changes of the brain and the thought patterns of the sufferer.

“Studies of white matter changes showed no relationship to migraine frequency or cognitive status of patients.”

[Featured Image by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]