As if painful cramping and uncomfortable bloating weren’t enough to deal with when you get your period, there’s another not-so-fun side effect many people with vaginas get: a menstrual migraine. As the name implies, menstrual migraine is a migraine attack that occurs around the time of your period. You might think it’s normal to get a headache with your period—it’s even sometimes called a hormonal headache—but it’s important to understand that migraine is no ordinary headache. It’s actually a neurological disease that causes debilitating pain, usually on one side of the head. The pain may feel throbbing or stabbing and it can come with other symptoms like nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and vomiting.
Approximately 70% of people who get migraine attacks have vaginas—in fact, migraine is three times more common in people with vaginas than those with penises, according to the Cleveland Clinic. On top of that, of the people who regularly experience migraines, 60 to 70% of them report a connection between their periods and migraine attacks. That makes sense given that fluctuating hormones are a known migraine trigger. Think you might suffer from menstrual migraine? Here’s everything you need to know, including the symptoms to look out for, prevention, and treatment options.
What is menstrual migraine?
If, like clockwork, you get a migraine around the time of your period—and only during that time of the month—you may have menstrual migraine. “The migraine can start about three days before actual bleeding, can continue while you bleed, and may go on for three days after bleeding ends,” Jessica Ailani, MD, a board-certified neurologist at Medstar’s Georgetown University Hospital, tells SELF. “Pure menstrual migraine, when you only get it around your period and no other times of the month, is actually pretty rare. Most women have menstrually-related migraine, which means it happens around their period but also at other times of the month.”
Pure menstrual migraine is more common in the teenage years and can progress from there, becoming menstrually-related migraine or even chronic migraine, where you have an attack 15 or more days per month. People going through perimenopause—when your body is transitioning to menopause—can also trigger menstrual migraines due to fluctuating estrogen levels.1 It’s important to note that menstrual migraine can occur in people who were born with a vagina or those who have transitioned, Dr. Ailani says.
What are menstrual migraine symptoms?
Menstrual migraine feels like any other form of migraine but it tends to last longer and may cause more nausea, Dr. Ailani says. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Headache Pain, menstrual migraine attacks may even be more painful than other types.2 Typical migraine symptoms include: 1
- Throbbing, pounding, or pulsating pain on one side of your head or around your eyes or cheeks
- Head pain that worsens with physical activity
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light, noise, and smells
- Head pain that lasts for several hours and up to several days
- Head pain that’s severe enough to make you miss your usual activities
Some people also experience migraine with aura, which is usually characterized by visual disturbances such as flashes of light, dots or blind spots, blurred vision, and vision loss. These symptoms usually show up before the migraine attack and go away in an hour or less. However, according to a 2021 study published in the journal South Dakota Medicine, having a menstrual migraine with aura is not very common.3