Conference Coverage

How can neurologists diagnose and treat menstrual migraine?



Menstrual migraine is more disabling than migraine that has no association with menstruation, said Susan Hutchinson, MD, director of the Orange County Migraine and Headache Center in Irvine, Calif. Compared with headaches associated with nonmenstrual migraine, headaches resulting from menstrual migraine last longer and are more difficult to treat. They tend to be associated with morning awakening and with nausea and vomiting. But in younger women with regular menses, menstrual migraine is predictable. The disorder offers “an incredible chance to be preemptive and think about short-term preventive strategies,” Dr. Hutchinson said at the annual meeting of the Headache Cooperative of New England.

What is menstrual migraine?

Menstrual migraine occurs during the perimenstrual window, which begins at 2 days before onset of bleeding and ends at 3 days of menses. Migraine that occurs during this window at least two-thirds of the time satisfies the criteria for menstrual migraine. A prospective headache diary is recommended, but not required, for making the diagnosis, said Dr. Hutchinson.

Most women with migraine have perimenstrual exacerbation of their headaches, as well as headaches at other times of the month. This phenotype is called menstrually related migraine. Pure menstrual migraine is migraine associated exclusively with menses. The International Classification of Headache Disorders-3 recognizes that menstrual migraine can be with or without aura. A headache diary can help distinguish between menstrual migraine and menstrually related migraine.

For pure menstrual migraine, it is appropriate to treat during the perimenstrual window. Preventive treatment may not be necessary throughout the month, said Dr. Hutchinson. Furthermore, hormonal treatment is the type of therapy most likely to be effective, she added. Menstrually related migraine requires a broader approach.

Gathering information during the visit

A 1972 study by Somerville and colleagues indicated that a decrease in estrogen is a powerful trigger of migraine. The investigators administered estrogen (i.e., intramuscular estradiol) or progesterone during the late luteal phase to women with menstrual migraine. Among women who received estrogen, migraine onset was postponed until the estrogen level decreased. The administration of progesterone postponed bleeding, but did not affect migraine. Progesterone treatment prevents migraine effectively on occasion, but estrogen treatment is much more likely to be a successful strategy, said Dr. Hutchinson.

Neurologists should ask certain questions of women with migraine, whether the patients are new or not, to gather information needed to make treatment decisions. For example, it is advisable to ask a woman whether she often has a headache with her period. “You may not want to use the word ‘migraine,’ because many women have been taught that headache is part of PMS,” said Dr. Hutchinson. Asking a woman how pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding affected her headaches can add further detail to her history and provide insight about the effects of hormonal changes. Asking what type of birth control the woman is taking can influence the choice of treatment, since some therapies are not appropriate during pregnancy.

Available treatments

NSAIDs are among the treatments that neurologists should consider for the short-term prevention of menstrually related migraine, said Dr. Hutchinson. A study of 35 patients by Sances et al. compared placebo with 550 mg of naproxen sodium given twice daily. Treatment began at 7 days before bleeding onset and continued until the 6th day of menses. Patients underwent treatment for three menstrual cycles. Naproxen sodium significantly reduced headache intensity, headache duration, and the number of headache days, compared with baseline. Treatment was superior to placebo at 3 months. Approximately 33% of patients in the active group were headache free, but no controls were.


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