Migraine attacks in women may be triggered by periods. Treatment of each migraine attack is no different than usual. However, there are treatments (detailed below) that may prevent period-related migraine attacks from occurring.
Are migraines a symptom of periods?
For some women, migraine attacks occur during or just before menstrual periods. The cause or trigger of the migraine is thought to be the drop in the oestrogen (also spelled as 'estrogen') level that occurs at this time in the cycle. Oestrogen is one of the chemicals (hormones) that control the menstrual cycle. The blood level of oestrogen falls just before a period, causing a 'period migraine'. It is not a low level of oestrogen that is thought to be the trigger but the drop in the level of oestrogen from one level to another.
Menstrual migraine occurs when you have a migraine attack around most periods that starts at any time from two days before your period to three days after the first day of a period. There are two types of menstrual migraines:
Pure menstrual migraine
This occurs when migraine attacks happen only around periods and not at other times. This occurs in about 1 in 7 women who have menstrual migraine.
This occurs when migraine attacks happen around periods but also happen at other times too. About 6 in 10 women who have menstrual migraine have this type of pattern.
Symptoms of menstrual migraine usually improve if you become pregnant, because during pregnancy there is consistent high level of oestrogen. As you approach the menopause, menstrual migraine attacks may become more frequent because your level of oestrogen tends to go up and down at this time. Once past the menopause, you have a constant stable low level of oestrogen, and menstrual migraine attacks tend to reduce.
Women who take the combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill, the contraceptive patch (the patch) and the contraceptive vaginal ring (the ring) have a fall in oestrogen in the pill-free week between pill packets. This is when the period or withdrawal bleed occurs. This fall in oestrogen may also trigger a menstrual migraine.
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How is menstrual migraine diagnosed?
Sometimes a period and a migraine attack (episode) occur at the same time by chance. Therefore, to make the diagnosis, a doctor may ask you to keep a migraine diary for three months or so. This helps to see the pattern of your migraine attacks, types of headaches and whether you have menstrual migraine.
What helps with menstrual migraines?
The treatment options are the same as for any other migraine attack (episode). Preventative treatment options include: painkillers, anti-inflammatory painkillers, antisickness medicines and triptan medicines. See the separate leaflet called Migraine.
Menstrual migraine treatment
Some women have severe menstrual migraine attacks (episodes), and some of those women find that treating each attack when it comes is not very satisfactory. In this situation, you may wish to consider a treatment that aims to prevent the migraine attacks.
These include mefenamic acid, naproxen, and ibuprofen. These are painkillers which can be used to treat each migraine attack once it occurs. However, one option is to take a short course of one of these medicines for a few days each time you have a period, even if you don't have a migraine, in order to prevent an attack. You can start taking the tablets a few days prior to an expected period, or when the period starts, and take them until the last day of bleeding. (Anti-inflammatory painkillers are also used to treat period pain and heavy periods. Therefore, this may be a particularly good option if you also have painful or heavy periods.)
Some people cannot take anti-inflammatory painkillers - for example, people with a duodenal ulcer, and some people with asthma. Side-effects are uncommon if you take an anti-inflammatory painkiller for just a few days at a time, during each period. However, read the leaflet that comes with the tablets for a full list of possible cautions and side-effects.
Topping up your hormone levels of oestrogen just before and during a period can prevent menstrual migraine by preventing the sudden drop in oestrogen levels that trigger it. Oestrogen skin patches or gels are sometimes used. You put the patches or gel on your skin for seven days starting from three days before the expected first day of your period. The oestrogen is absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. This is like having hormone replacement therapy (HRT) just for seven days each month. (Unlike long-term HRT you do not need an additional progestogen medicine with the oestrogen.) Note: oestrogen supplements are not licensed for the treatment of menstrual migraine. However, many doctors are happy to prescribe them 'off licence' for this condition.
Contraceptives as a treatment for menstrual migraine
Hormonal contraceptives (birth control pills) are a useful option if menstrual migraine is a problem and you also need contraception. Hormonal birth control options may include:
Progestogen-based contraceptives to prevent ovulation (if ovulation is prevented then your hormone cycle is altered and becomes more level, with no drop in the oestrogen level to trigger a migraine attack).
- These include desogestrel (a progestogen-only pill (POP) - Cerazette®), the contraceptive implant (Nexplanon®), or the contraceptive injection.
- Most women with migraine at any age can use progestogen-based contraceptives - even if they have migraine attacks with aura.
- The only time you would not be advised to use progestogen-based contraception is if you started to develop migraine attacks with aura only after starting to take one of these types of contraceptive.
Combined hormonal contraceptives (the COC pill, the contraceptive vaginal ring and the contraceptive patch) also prevent ovulation; however, during the pill-free week some women with menstrual migraine will still experience migraines. Moreover, not all women with menstrual migraine can take these treatments.
- If you have or develop migraine attacks with aura, you should never use combined hormonal contraception again at all.
- If you have migraine attacks without aura you should not use combined hormonal contraception again if you are aged 35 or older. See the separate leaflet called Migraine, which deals with migraine with aura.
In some women with migraine who use combined hormonal contraceptives, migraine attacks (episodes) are also triggered by the drop in the blood level of oestrogen during the pill-free or patch-free interval.
- So long as these migraine attacks are without aura AND you were already known to have migraine without aura before starting the pill or the patch, there is usually no need to stop your combined hormonal contraceptive unless you wish to try a different method.
- If they are migraines with aura you should stop using combined hormonal contraception.
- If you have never had migraines of any sort before, you should stop using combined hormonal contraception.
If you chose a combined hormonal contraceptive (pill, ring or patch) in the hope of reducing menstrual migraine but still have migraine attacks without aura in the pill-free week then options to consider to reduce migraine in the pill-free week are:
- Changing to a COC pill with less progestogen. Migraine attacks during the pill-free interval seem to occur less often in women who take a pill with a lower dose of progestogen.
- Tri-cycling your combined hormonal contraceptive. This means using your combined hormonal contraceptive continuously for three packets, rings or patches without any breaks, followed by a seven-day contraceptive-free interval. This keeps the level of oestrogen constant for nine weeks (three weeks each):
- By doing this you have fewer withdrawal bleeds and, therefore, fewer migraine attacks. It is OK to have only one withdrawal bleed every three packets. Note: you can only do this with pill types that have the same dose of progestogen for each dose. These are the commonly used types; however, talk to your doctor or nurse if you are unsure.
- Using oestrogen supplements during the seven-day pill-free, ring-free or patch-free interval.
- A change to a different method of contraception.
Contraception and preventive migraine treatments
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the MHRA (the body that regulates medications in the UK) advise that some anticonvulsant drugs (usually used to treat epilepsy, but sometimes offered to help prevent migraine):
- Can interfere with the effectiveness of some forms of hormonal contraception.
- Can cause birth defects in your baby if you take them during pregnancy.
If you are a woman who needs contraception or who might become pregnant, please see the separate leaflet called Migraine Medication, Treatment and Prevention for more details.
Dr Mary Lowth is an author or the original author of this leaflet.
Further reading and references
Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management; NICE Clinical Guideline (September 2012, last updated December 2021)
Antiepileptic drugs in pregnancy: updated advice following comprehensive safety review; GOV.UK - Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (January 2021)
Kesserwani H; Migraine Triggers: An Overview of the Pharmacology, Biochemistry, Atmospherics, and Their Effects on Neural Networks. Cureus. 2021 Apr 113(4):e14243. doi: 10.7759/cureus.14243.
Sacco S, Merki-Feld GS, AEgidius KL, et al; Effect of exogenous estrogens and progestogens on the course of migraine during reproductive age: a consensus statement by the European Headache Federation (EHF) and the European Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health (ESCRH). J Headache Pain. 2018 Aug 3119(1):76. doi: 10.1186/s10194-018-0896-5.
Wood LM, Massey SM, Townsend KM, et al; Contraceptive conundrums: A case report of a woman with migraine. Nurse Pract. 2020 Aug45(8):11-15. doi: 10.1097/01.NPR.0000669156.23456.a3.