Medically reviewed by Sophia Yen, MD, MPH – Written by Pandia Health Editorial Team
Can Birth Control Prevent Migraines?
Migraines are the 6th most disabling illness in the world. 12% of the world’s population suffers from migraines, with 18% of American women, 6% of men, and 10% of children experiencing the disorder. While migraines are a common illness, more women than men suffer from them, and women within their reproductive years are most likely to experience migraine attacks.
Migraines aren’t just a regular headache. They are debilitating disorders with accompanying neurological symptoms, and up to 90% of people who get migraines are unable to work or perform their usual day-to-day functioning.
There is no single, known cause of migraines, but hormones and hormone therapy may play a role in the cause and the cure for migraines. For migraine sufferers, hormonal birth control may help prevent and treat migraine disorders.
What is a migraine?
Everyone will experience a headache at some point in their life. But a migraine is far more than just a headache. A migraine is usually characterized by severe, throbbing pain on one side of the head, but in about one-third of cases, both sides of the head will be affected. Most migraines last between four and 72 hours, and come with other symptoms besides head pain:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness and visual disturbances
- Sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and touch
- Tingling or numbness in the face or extremities
Not every migraine sufferer will experience these other symptoms, and sometimes accompanying symptoms can vary for each migraine attack.
What causes migraines?
Until recently, the medical community believed that migraines were caused by blood vessel constriction in the head. Medications for migraines were targeted to dilating blood vessels in the pursuit of stopping migraines in their tracks and reversing symptoms. But, new research indicates possibly other causes in migraine attacks, chiefly, neurotransmitters and nerve pathways. Although genetics may play a small role in who gets migraines and who doesn’t, genetics are not the only risk factor. Environmental stressors can play a role in triggering migraines.
Researchers have found that serotonin decreases in migraine attacks. This sudden decrease can cause the trigeminal nerve to release neuropeptides, which travel to the outside covering of the brain and trigger the pain associated with migraines. Certain foods, drinks, changes in sleep-wake cycles and even physical exertion can trigger a migraine. But hormonal fluctuations are the most well-known migraine trigger.
Hormonal Fluctuations in Women
Changes in estrogen are a significant factor in what triggers migraines in women. Women who have a history of migraines tend to report that the attacks typically start either right before or during their periods. This time of the monthly cycle will cause a drop in estrogen levels. Some women also report increased migraine attacks during pregnancy or menopause. For some women, oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapies can trigger migraines or prevent them from happening.
How can hormonal birth control help or worsen migraine symptoms?
Research suggests that low-dose estrogen birth control pills can prevent migraines, while higher dose pills can sometimes make a headache worse. Every woman is different and will respond differently to hormonal contraceptives. It’s important that women speak to their doctors about any history of migraines before trying a new hormonal contraceptive. But for women with migraine histories, trying low-dose estrogen pills is a good starting point.
Also, some migraine sufferers will experience visual disturbances when they get a migraine attack. This is referred to as a migraine “aura.” For women with a history of migraines with aura, they may benefit from a different combination for hormonal contraceptives than women with migraines who don’t get the accompanying visual disturbances.
Two types of hormonal birth control pills can help migraine sufferers:
- Combination oral contraceptives
- Progestogen-only birth control pill
Is it safe to take the pill continuously to prevent migraines?
It is safe to take the pill to prevent migraines continuously. The most common downside to this method is that women are more likely to experience breakthrough bleeding and irregular spotting if they were to do this. However, for most women, this side-effect will stop after several months of using an extended-cycle birth control regimen.
Current research shows that there are few monthly health benefits to getting a period every single month. And for women with migraines, preventing migraine triggers with continuous birth control can have a huge impact on their quality of life. Continuous or extended-cycle birth control pills can stop all period-related discomfort too.
Migraines are a terrible thing to have to live with, and there is no known cure. But fortunately for women with migraines, hormonal contraceptives can help prevent migraine attacks and improve their quality of life. While the majority of women use birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, 7% of all birth control pill users take oral contraceptives strictly for health-related reasons.
It’s now easier than ever to have hormonal birth control pills delivered straight to your door. Contact Pandia Health today to explore your birth control options and stop debilitating migraine headaches before they start.
For women who stop taking birth control pills during the week of their period, they will experience a natural and sudden drop in estrogen levels. It is this drop in estrogen that is known to trigger migraines. Fortunately, there are several things that women can do to prevent migraines with birth control pills.
Take the pills for a continuous three months to experience fewer migraines per year.
Take birth control pills continuously to prevent migraine attacks completely.
It is possible for women with migraines to take low-dose estrogen birth control for at least three cycles continuously. They can take a four to seven-day break in the pills where they would get a period. However, this four to seven-day break can give migraines an opportunity to attack. The upside of using this method is women will experience fewer instances of breakthrough bleeding than if they were to take the pill continuously. And if they were only getting a period four times a year, then there’s still less chance of experiencing a migraine than if they were to get a period each month.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article intend to inform and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Pandia Health, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.