Studies find certain migraines, hormone therapies could increase stroke risk

By Briana Vannozzi

After suffering from migraines most of her life, Amelia Cintron says it reached a peak when she began hormone-replacement therapy in preparation for IVF treatments.

“I started getting really severe migraine headaches where I would kind of lose vision or have blurred vision,” she said.

Cintron, who happens to be NJTV’s makeup artist, was having severe side effects from the estrogen treatment. She was hospitalized for stroke-like symptoms, though never officially diagnosed.

“My coworkers noticed that one side of my face was drooping and I lost feeling in my right hand, my right arm and the right side of my face,” said Cintron.

“So we know the migrainers are at least twice the risk of having the stroke than the regular population,” said Jawad Kirmani, director of the Stroke and Neurovascular center at JFK Medical Center.

What’s more, recent research suggests the risk for stroke is even greater if those migraine patients suffer from visual symptoms called auras. And as Kirmani explains, women taking oral contraceptives or hormone-replacement medications containing estrogen are 30 percent more likely to suffer a clot-based stroke.

“People think of migraines headaches as just headaches. Migraine is a phenomenon of the blood vessels in the brain where the blood vessels contract and expand. That’s why you get that pounding sensation because the blood vessel is contracting and expanding,” Kirmani said.

If the blood slows down due to that constriction or expansion clots can form, in some cases traveling to the brain. It poses an even greater risk for women if estrogen is added to the mix.

“It can thicken your blood and especially for those women who are smokers at the same time. It becomes a much higher risk factors to be on birth control pills and smoking at the same time,” said Kirmani.

“I was hiking and I felt that my whole right side of my body went a little weak and it felt like it fell asleep and I didn’t know what it was,” said Emily Jimenez.

Jimenez suffered several mini-strokes. The 38-year-old was initially misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s a common mistake, according to Kirmani, because young, otherwise healthy females, are often overlooked as stroke candidates. Jimenez was ultimately diagnosed with a cerebrovascular disease unrelated to migraines. But Kirmani points out migraine symptoms can be confused with stroke and don’t always cause headaches.

“It can also cause transient symptoms of numbness, weakness without having a headache, and sometimes it causes just visual auras or transient fleeting sensation as if there’s something present in your vision,” he said.

We should point out, though, the research doesn’t prove cause and effect. It’s a strong association between migraines with aura, estrogen use and the risk of stroke. What’s more, if your auras or migraines are changing, especially after starting on a hormone, Kirmani says it’s a call for action.