Are Migraines Dangerous? A Look At The Risks

Migraines can disrupt your everyday life, as they produce severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms that make it difficult to work, go to school, participate in physical activity, or complete activities of daily living. 

It is estimated that approximately 12%¹ of Americans experience migraines annually, making it a relatively common occurrence. While most migraines are not dangerous, some may warrant emergency medical attention. 

Learn more about the causes and different types of migraines and when to see a doctor for treatment. 

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When should you worry about your migraines?

Most migraines result in pain, difficulty concentrating, and other relatively minor symptoms, while others can be absolutely debilitating. They can be felt primarily on one side of the head and can range from mild to severe. 

While you usually don’t have to worry if you’re experiencing an occasional migraine, you need to talk to your doctor if you experience it regularly. 

One of the biggest signs that your migraines may be more serious and require medical attention is if you experience auras. Auras are often described as a disturbance in sensations and speech, and they impact about 25%² of people who get migraines. 

People who experience visual auras sometimes see shapes in their field of vision, while others see flashing lights or partial vision loss. Speech disturbances make it difficult to talk properly, which may be due to numbness in the face and mouth or from interruptions in brain function. Others still may experience tingling and numbness around their body or weakness in their limbs. 

People who experience auras with migraines are at an increased risk for stroke, which is why auras are a concerning symptom in someone who experiences migraines. 

Symptoms of migraines

Besides creating pulsing headaches, migraines can also produce the following symptoms:

  • Feeling tired

  • Loss of appetite

  • Dizziness

  • Blurred vision

  • Sensitivity to light, odors, and sounds

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Feeling very cold or warm

Not everyone experiences migraines in the same way, but the above symptoms are the most common ones that people with migraines deal with on a regular basis. Those who experience auras may also notice a change in smell or taste, tingling on their skin, or feeling overall unwell. 

Causes of migraines

Despite the prevalence of migraines in the general population, not much is understood about what causes it. The pain you feel when you have a migraine is from nerves that send pain signals up to your brain, which triggers the release of inflammation in your head.  

Migraines do tend to run in families, so there is a genetic component. In fact, if one of your parents experiences migraines, you have a 50% to 75% chance³ of suffering from it, too. 

Rare and extreme types of migraines

Most people who suffer from migraines don’t usually receive a diagnosis of a specific type of migraine unless it is severe and significantly impacts their lives. 

Those who do have severe migraines may have one of the following rare types of migraines:

  • Hemiplegic migraines—cause severe headaches and produce weakness on one side of the body

  • Abdominal migraines—produce nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting and don’t typically result in headaches

  • Intractable migraines—last over 72 hours and have been unresponsive to regular treatments

  • Menstrual migraines—occur before or during a woman’s period and are usually due to changes in hormones

  • Retinal migraines—cause periods of visual problems or blindness, but they don’t usually cause long-term problems

  • Migraine with brainstem aura—originates in the brain stem or both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously 

You will also be diagnosed with chronic migraines if you experience at least 15 days of migraines per month for more than three months.

You may need to see a specialist to receive one of the above diagnoses, but narrowing down which type of migraines you suffer from can help you and your doctor figure out a better, more specific treatment plan. 

Treating and managing migraines

Even though migraines aren’t well understood, there are several available treatment options that can help you prevent migraines or help you feel better once they present themselves. 

Some of the most common treatment options for migraines include the following:

Avoiding triggers

Migraines can appear on their own at any time, but they can also be triggered by various conditions or sensations. 

Some common triggers among migraine sufferers are:

  • Strong smells

  • Changes in sleep

  • Bright lights

  • Certain sounds

  • Stress

  • Hormonal changes

  • Caffeine

These are just a few of the dozens of possible triggers of migraines. To avoid triggers, it’s important to first identify them. Many people find it helpful to keep a journal of possible triggers to look for patterns. 

If your family members also suffer from migraines, ask them about their triggers to compare them to your own. 

Using over-the-counter pain relievers

When people experience a headache or migraine, they often reach for whichever over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever they have handy. 

There are some OTC pain relievers that are more beneficial for migraine sufferers than others, and they may provide a higher degree of relief. Ibuprofen and aspirin are often first-line treatments, as these medications have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. Since migraines lead to inflammation, you can get more relief from anti-inflammatory pain relievers.

Acetaminophen is another OTC painkiller, and it can help curb some of the pain your migraine causes. It does not have anti-inflammatory properties, though, so it may not be as effective as ibuprofen and aspirin. 

Another OTC medication is Excedrin,⁴ which is made specifically for migraines. It contains a mixture of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine. 

Using prescription medications

There are several prescription medications that your doctor can prescribe for your migraine, including triptans, lasmiditan, and ubrogepant. Each of these medications can treat migraines and reduce the symptoms associated with them, but they may interact with other medications when taken together. 

Be sure to tell your doctor about all prescription medications, OTC painkillers, and any supplements you are taking to avoid negative drug interactions. 

Is migraine dangerous? Risks and complications of migraines

Migraines can sometimes lead to complications that may not respond to typical treatments and may even produce other symptoms. Fortunately, one review found that in women, having migraines and headaches is not associated with all-cause mortality. 

Still, it’s helpful to be aware of risks associated with migraines to be better prepared in case they happen to you or a loved one. 

Migralepsy⁵ is one such complication, and it refers to a seizure occurring within an hour of a migraine aura attack. Migraines and epilepsy seem to share pathways in the brain, but it’s not clear how they are associated. Stroke and other cardiovascular conditions are also potential complications of migraines. 

Unfortunately, there appears to be an association between women who have migraines with auras and an increased risk of dying of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. Research on this association is still limited, but it’s a good idea to seek medical attention if you experience auras. 

Migraines that lead to such complications may cause permanent damage, though regular migraines don’t harm the brain or body. Oddly, those who experience migraines sometimes show white lesions on brain scans, but those lesions don’t appear to impact cognition or other functions. 

When to see a doctor

Talk to your doctor if you experience migraines frequently, as they may be able to provide medications that can address your symptoms. They can also refer you to a specialist that can help you identify the causes and provide a more specialized treatment plan. 

Additionally, seek emergency care if you experience migraines that:

  • Come on suddenly

  • Produce weakness or numbness in the face or body

  • Produce language and speech problems

  • Cause confusion or seizures

  • Are a type of headache you have never experienced before

If you aren’t sure whether your migraine warrants medical attention, it’s always better to exercise caution and get checked out instead of waiting too long for treatment. 

The lowdown

It’s important to understand that migraines usually don’t lead to death or cause permanent damage unless they are accompanied by another, more severe condition. 

Most people see improvements in their migraines by avoiding their triggers and using OTC or prescription medications recommended by their doctors. However, some people do need additional treatments to prevent and treat their migraines. 

If you experience migraines regularly, make sure to consult your doctor about treatment options.

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