If you suffer from menstrual headaches you’re not alone. Here’s why it happens (and how you can help yourself through the worst of them).
About 7 years ago I experienced my first menstrual headache; a 5-day experience that began as a tension headache that ran up my back, shoulders, jawline, and eventually up to my forehead before festering behind my left eye socket for 24 hours. The regular over-the-counter pain medication I normally took didn’t offer any relief and I just had to wait until the headache began to dissipate on its own. Since then, menstrual headaches have become a regular part of my cycle, recurring every other period and always with the same intensity and 5-day duration.
Although headaches aren’t discussed with the same frequency as other premenstrual and menstrual symptoms they’re a fairly common occurrence for anyone who gets a period (about 50-60 percent of people experience them regularly). As it turns out, there are a couple of factors that can contribute to menstrual headaches (and a variety of ways in which they can be treated).
Estrogen and headaches: What’s the connection?
Scientists are only now beginning to understand the role estrogen and other sex hormones play when it comes to the body’s ability to cope with both emotional and physical pain. When estrogen levels are high your brain responds quickly to pain, releasing a wave of endorphins that help your body minimize the sensations of both physical and emotional pain. When estrogen levels are lowered, a process that begins about a week before the first day of your period, your brain isn’t able to combat pain as efficiently and effectively as it can during the rest of your cycle. For some of us, this dip in estrogen can trigger menstrual headaches and migraines either before, during, or towards the end of our cycle.
Menstrual headaches and hormonal birth control pills
When it comes to the birth control pill and menstrual headaches there’s good news and bad news. The good news? Birth control pills are often used to treat menstrual headaches. Some doctors recommend that regular menstrual migraine sufferers continuously take their birth control without having a period in order to avoid fluctuating estrogen levels. The bad news? If you experience ocular migraines, also known as migraines with auras, your doctor may be reluctant to prescribe you a combination birth control pill containing both estrogen and progestin due to an increased risk of stroke.
Finding relief from menstrual headaches
Fortunately, there are many ways you can find some relief in the midst of a menstrual headache. Experiment with what feels best, you may discover that what does the trick for a regular headache won’t be as effective when it comes menstrual headaches.
- NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and acetaminophen: Over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, and acetaminophen can provide a great deal of relief if you suffer from menstrual headaches. Don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist for recommendations, they’ll be able to direct you to the best option based on your symptoms.
- Ice and heat: It’s worth investing in a good ice pack and heating pad if your regularly suffer from menstrual headaches (and they work really well for period cramps, too!). Alternating between hot and cold (or just using one) can give provide you with immense amounts of relief from your headache.
- Water: Staying hydrated is key when you’re suffering from a headache and menstrual headaches are no exception. Water, decaffeinated tea, and fresh fruit juices are all excellent ways to quench your thirst.
Stretch: It might feel like the last thing you want to do, especially if you’re at your wit’s end after a prolonged menstrual headache, but some gentle stretching (especially in your neck, jaw, and shoulders) can unlock a lot of tension. If you’re looking for inspiration (and aren’t too light sensitive to look at a computer screen) Yoga With Adriene’s Yoga for Migraines has given me immense relief on many occasions.
Ashley Linkletter is a mental health, food, and nutrition writer based in Vancouver, BC.