Migraines in Women May Have Link to MS

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Feb. 16, 2010 — Women with a history of migraines may be more likely todevelop multiple sclerosis than women without the headaches, but it is notclear if migraines are a risk factor for the neurological disorder.

In the first large-scale study to examine the relationship between migrainesand multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers found that migraine sufferers wereroughly 50% more likely to develop MS as non-sufferers, although the overallrisk for MS was very small.

More research is needed to understand if migraines have a causal role in thedevelopment of MS, neurologist and study researcher Ilya Kister, MD, of NewYork University Medical School tells WebMD.

“We can’t say if migraines slightly increase a person’s chances ofdeveloping MS, or if they are one of the early symptoms of MS,” he says. “Whatwe can say is that individual migraine patients have little cause for panic orconcern because more than 99% of them will never develop MS.”

MS and Migraines

Women are twice as likely to develop multiple sclerosis as men and threetimes as likely to suffer from migraines. And both conditions are most oftendiagnosed before the age of 50.

While several previous studies have shown migraines to be common amongpatients being treated for MS, it has not been clear if the association wasreal, Kister says.

“These studies were done in clinic populations and these populations tend toreport more symptoms in general,” he says.

In an effort to better understand the prevalence and impact of migraines inpatients with MS, Kister and colleagues analyzed data from more than 116,600female nurses participating in a nationwide health study.

The women were enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II in 1989 and they werefollowed for 16 years.

Roughly 18,000 reported a physician-diagnosed history of migraines atenrollment and 375 were diagnosed with MS during the study.

After adjusting for other suspected risk factors for MS, having a history ofmigraines was associated with a 47% increase in risk for developing thedisorder.

As yet unpublished data revealed that a diagnosis of MS was also associatedwith an increased risk for developing migraines, Kister says.

His study was made public today and will be presented at the annual meetingof the American Academy of Neurology in mid-April.

“Clearly, this is not a simple relationship,” he says. “These two conditionsseem to be linked somehow, but the relationship runs both ways.”

A Patient’s Story

Winchester, Va., freelance writer Ann Pietrangelo has had migraines sinceshe was a teenager. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004 at theage of 44.

“I felt there was a connection from the beginning, but I never had a doctorwho was particularly interested in discussing it,” she tells WebMD. “When I goonline and talk to other people with MS it amazes me how many of them havemigraines, too.”

Pietrangelo says she immediately suspected a link between her migraines andher MS because her frequent, debilitating headaches became much less frequentand debilitating around the time of her diagnosis.

“After a lifetime of chronic headaches — I rarely went a week withouthaving at least one — my migraines suddenly changed about six months prior tomy first MS attack,” she says. “I started having fewer of them and they wereless intense.”

Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society calls theNYU study interesting but preliminary.

“I think in many ways it raises more questions than it answers,” he says.”It is really hard to determine in a study like this one if migraines are arisk factor or co-morbidity of MS.”

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