How migraine and mini stroke affect stroke risk

Stroke symptoms can be deceivingly similar to symptoms of other neurological conditions. From vision problems and nausea to severe headaches and sound sensitivity, how can you know whether your symptoms are fleeting or a sign of something more serious?

In fact, it could be both. Migraines with auras and transient ischemic attacks (TIA or mini strokes) increase your risk of stroke and mimic stroke in their symptoms. But these conditions affect the brain and body much differently.

If you think you are having a stroke, call 911 immediately.

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Knowing what to look for and what to do if you experience symptoms or notice them in a loved one is important to educate yourself and your family about these serious conditions.

Mini strokes aren’t true strokes

Transient ischemic attacks (TIA or mini strokes) occur when blood flow to the brain is blocked temporarily. Think of it like a clogged sink– there’s no water going downstream, and that’s what happens in the arteries. We see 250 to 300 people each year who suffer a TIA or have stroke warning symptoms.

TIA often is called mini stroke, but it’s not actually a type of stroke. Strokes typically cause permanent brain damage while TIA usually doesn’t.

TIA and strokes usually have the same symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Drooping of one side of the face
  • Numbness or tingling on one side of the body
  • Slurred speech
  • Weakness in the arms or legs

These symptoms almost always are immediate. One minute you’re fine, the next you’re not.

The parts of the body that are controlled by the affected area of the brain will lose function. In stroke patients, permanent damage usually occurs. In TIA patients, function generally returns after the attack is over.

If you experience any of these symptoms, or if you notice them in a loved one, get medical help as soon as possible. Having a mini stroke increases your risk of having a true stroke in the future.

If the cause of your symptoms is TIA, we will recommend an appropriate treatment to prevent a true stroke. This may include aspirin, blood thinners, or a procedure to clear clogged arteries.

If you’re having a stroke, time lost is brain lost. Get to our emergency room as soon as symptoms appear so we can start treatment and reduce damage to the brain.

Related reading: How in-ambulance care for stroke patients helps us save lives

How migraines are related to stroke

Migraines are intense headaches that can last for hours. In the United States, 18 percent of women report they suffer from migraines, and 25 percent of them suffer from migraines with auras.

Auras signal that a migraine is coming, and may include:

  • Visual aura: This is the most common aura and can cause tunnel vision or seeing wavy lines, star shapes, rainbow effects, or flashing lights.
  • Auditory: This aura causes extreme sensitivity to sound.
  • Epigastric (abdominal): Nausea and stomach pain occur with this type of aura.
  • Sensory: People with this aura experience tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms or legs.

Research has shown that women who experience migraines with auras are at higher risk for stroke. People who have migraines without auras are not at increased risk.

When we see women for migraines with auras, we talk with them about ways to decrease their stroke risk. This is especially important if they have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, smoking, or diabetes.

Migraine symptoms mimic stroke symptoms, but their effects are opposite. For example, you may feel weak on one side of your body or become unable to think clearly during the episode. When a migraine subsides, you’ll return to normal function. But with a stroke, you likely won’t.

Think of it this way: Strokes cause you to lose physical, emotional, or cognitive function. Migraines cause you to gain function, such as increased sensitivity to environmental factors.

There are a variety of migraine treatments available, including pills, injections, acupuncture, and nerve stimulation devices. Your doctor can help you find an appropriate treatment to control your migraines and monitor your stroke risk.

How to decrease your risk of stroke

Many stroke risk factors also increase your risk of migraine or TIA. Genetics play a role in these conditions, and though we can’t change your DNA, we can offer screenings and lifestyle counseling to help reduce the risks under your control.

You can make these lifestyle changes to reduce your stroke risk:

  • Drink less alcohol. Alcohol increases blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries and increases the risk of blood clots.
  • Control your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and diabetes. Each of these chronic conditions cause plaque to build up in the arteries, which narrows the path for blood to flow to the brain.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is linked to these and many other conditions, including certain types of cancer.

If you are concerned about your risk of stroke, call us at (815) 935-0750 or schedule a consultation online with one of the neurologists in our Certified Primary Stroke Center. We’ll run some tests to assess your risk and help you better manage your existing conditions to potentially avoid a stroke. If you experience stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately.