Migraine sufferers taking birth control risk stroke

If you have a history of severe headaches, especially accompanied by visual disturbances such as flashing lights, you should be aware of the risks of taking birth control that contains estrogen, most notably an elevated stroke risk. The changes in the levels of estrogen induced by birth control pills may affect the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, “estrogen adversely influences the brain receptors that play a role in migraine development.”

Furthermore, migraine sufferers who take birth control with estrogen have an increased stroke risk, according to research released by the University of Virginia.

Stroke is generally rare in women between the ages of 20-44, occurring in four or five individuals out of 100,000. However, this year, more than 100,000 U.S. women under 65 will have a stroke, according to the American Stroke Association.

“It is strongly recommended that women with a personal or family history of migraine headaches should select non-estrogen methods of contraception,” according to the University of Virginia.

Combination birth control pills are the most commonly used oral contraceptives. They contain a synthetic version of estrogen as well as a synthetic version of the female hormone progesterone, also called progestin, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Some of the better-known combination birth control pills are Ortho Tri-Cyclen and Loestrin.

As an alternative to estrogen-containing combination pills for women with migraines, progestin-only birth control pills may carry less stroke risk.

“Progestin-only means that the birth control contains no estrogen,” says Evelyn Torres, community health worker at Santa Monica College. “This gives a smaller dosage of hormones, which decreases the risk of circulatory disorder.

Often called “mini-pills,” some progestin-only birth control pills include Ortho Micronor, Nora-Be, and Nor-QD.

“Progestin birth control has less side effects, but more spotting and occurrences of early periods,” says Torres. “There is more risk for pregnancy if it isn’t taken regularly.”

According to the MRF, migraines are misunderstood and often go misdiagnosed mostly because of the wide range of symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and extreme sensitivity to light and smell.

These uncomfortable symptoms are often unpredictable. Potentially occurring many times per month to almost daily, migraines can hinder a person’s daily activity and performance levels.

The MRF states that migraine headaches are categorized as a syndrome, and that those who experience migraines can have attacks lasting from four to 72 hours. Migraines are considered to be among the most disabling medical illnesses, rendering more than 90 percent of sufferers incapable of carrying out their daily functions during attacks.

According to the National Headache Foundation, 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience an aura as a premonition to migraines.

An aura is characterized by visual, neurological symptoms such as flashing lights, zigzag lines or blind spots in the field of vision, which can distort figures and interfere with reading or driving.

According to the package insert for Aviane, a combination birth control pill, women who suffer from “headaches with focal neurological symptoms,” such as an aura, should not take combination oral contraceptives.

The ASA states that people who have migraines are ten times more likely to suffer from a stroke, and twice more likely if they take birth control pills, even with a low-estrogen count.