It feels like elephants are doing the mambo on my skull. Ouch. And it’s that time of the month. Double ouch.

What could be the cause of this cranial cramp?

Can I prevent it?

Headaches can generally range from a slight annoyance to a debilitating affliction. A migraine is a very painful type of headache that can last from four hours to three days. During migraines, people are very sensitive to light and sound, and might also become nauseated and vomit.

Did You Know?
Not so long ago, migraines were thought to be caused mainly by abnormally enlarged blood vessels. However, recent research has shown that migraines are caused by over-excited nerve cells in the brain.

Using modern brain-imaging techniques, scientists have shown that certain stimuli (e.g. bright lights, alcohol, and smells) can trigger susceptible brain nerve cells, causing them to become overactive, bringing on a migraine. Scientists also claim that female brains are more sensitive to migraine-causing stimuli than male brains (like ladies don’t have enough problems already).

Additionally, because of hormonal changes throughout monthly cycles, 60 per cent of women who experience migraines suffer from menstrual migraines specifically. Menstrual migraines generally occur just before, during, or immediately after a menstrual period, when estrogen (the primary female sex hormone) levels drop significantly.

Did You Know?
Due to hormonal fluctuations, women are three times as likely to experience a migraine headache than men.

Hormonal medications such as the birth control pill can actually worsen migraines in some cases while lessening the effects of migraines in others. How can this be?

A common type of birth control pill is the combined oral contraceptive pill, which contains not only estrogen but also progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone). Since packages of birth control pills contain either placebo pills or no pills for the duration of one week (the week you ladies have your period), the concentration of these hormones, in particular estrogen, in the body drops during that week and may trigger a migraine.

One effective treatment for preventing these migraines is to take active birth control pills, which contain estrogen in them instead of no hormones during the "off" week of combined pills. Doing so prevents the large drop in estrogen levels.

Did You Know?
Stress and anxiety can also trigger a migraine.

There you have it! The pill can be the cause of and solution to female headache woes. Make sure you talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these types of headaches and he or she may be able to help.

References:

Ahrendt HJ, Adolf D, Buhling KJ, Advantages and challenges of estrogen-free hormonal contraception, Current Medical Research and Opinion, 26, (8), 2010, 1947-1955.

Machado RB, Pereira AP, Coelho GP, et al. “Epidemiological and clinical aspects of migraine in users of combinedoral contraceptives”, Contraception, 81, 2010, 202-208.

“Migraine”, Mayo Clinic, accessed September 26, 2010.

“Migraines & Headaches Guide”, WebMD, accessed September 26, 2010.

“The Classification”, International Headache Society, accessed September 25, 2010.

Trussell, James, "Contraceptive Efficacy", in Hatcher, Robert A., et al.. Contraceptive Technology (19th rev. ed.). New York: Ardent Media., 2007.

“Why Women Get More Headaches than Men”, Science Daily, accessed September 26, 2010.

Article first published on October 7, 2010.

Photo Credit: iStock

Amy MacDonald

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Alberta Centre for Toxicology located in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine. My Ph.D. is in analytical chemistry and I am really enjoying applying that knowledge to the field of toxicology. In my free time I enjoy doing science outreach, running (training for a 10K right now), playing softball, and reading.


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