Abdominal pain and cramping during your period might be unpleasant, but at least it makes sense: your reproductive organs are in your abdomen, after all. Headaches during your period, on the other hand, are a little less intuitive – but they’re nevertheless very common. Let’s run through what we know about period headaches, and what you can do to get them under control.
What causes headaches during periods?
There are two main types of headaches you are likely to experience during your menstrual periods – and they both have their own strategies for recovery.
Type #1: Tension headaches
These are the same garden-variety headaches you might experience at any time of the month, often as a tightness or pain in the front of your head or behind your eyes. Tension headaches during the menstrual period tend to be more intense and don’t respond as well to treatment.
Type #2: Menstrual migraines
A migraine is no ordinary headache: it’s intense, usually on just one side of your head, and often comes with other symptoms like nausea and light sensitivity. Around 15% of women have migraines,1but more than half of female migraine sufferers find theirs are menstrual migraines.
It’s thought that a menstrual migraine is linked to fluctuations in estrogen – the levels of which drop just before and during a period. The release of prostaglandins in the first 2 days of a period is also thought to be a cause for a menstrual migraine. The symptoms of menstrual migraines tend to last longer than other types of migraines, and they are less likely to have an “aura” (symptoms like visual disturbances that let you know a migraine is about to strike.)
Tracking your period headaches
Headaches during periods can be a real, er, headache…. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless against them! Start by keeping a diary of your headache symptoms relative to where you’re up in your menstrual cycle.
Once you’re able to distinguish between your different cycle phases and headache symptoms, you may be able to anticipate when you’re likely to be affected by a headache or a migraine. If you have the upper hand, there are steps you can take to get in control of your headaches.
Treatment for tension headaches during periods
Period-linked or otherwise, tension headaches are likely linked to tight muscles in your face, head and neck. By releasing some of this tension, you may be able to relieve some of the pain. You may want to consider:
Trained acupuncture therapists use thin, sterile needles to stimulate pressure points in various parts of the body, based on the traditional Chinese medicine theory that this balances Qi (life energy) flow throughout the body. Some study suggests this could be an effective way to treat tension headaches.
Massage therapy can help reduce the tension if your tight muscles may lead to tension headaches. If period tracking shows you’re likely to get a headache around on a particular day, booking a massage to relieve some of the built-up tension could help you nip it in the bud.
Stress is a common cause of tension headaches, and periods can be stressful in their own right – but there’s one more reason to try and keep your stress levels under control.
Since your stress response relies on the same part of your brain as your reproductive hormones, heightened stress can put your hormones on the backburner, leading to hormone imbalance and menstrual irregularities. Fighting stress with positive self-care strategies like regular exercise or taking some time to enjoy your hobbies could help you balance out irregular hormone pattern.
Treatment for menstrual migraines during periods
Menstrual migraines are a little more complicated than tension headaches, but there are still strategies you can take to ease some of the pain.
Granted, taking pain relief for a nasty headache might seem like a no-brainer, but there’s a knack to it when yours is linked to your menstrual cycle. Doctors tend to recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like naproxen or mefenamic acid for menstrual migraines. Taking them a few days before you usually get a period means you could prevent migraines before they cause symptoms.
However, side effects of NSAIDs means that they aren’t for everyone, so check with your doctor before you introduce them to your headache treatment plan. Doctors may also recommend another class of medication called triptans for menstrual migraines, though these require a prescription.
If your migraine and period tracking shows a clear association between low estrogen phases and the start of your migraines, you may wish to discuss estrogen supplements with your doctor.
If it’s appropriate for your situation, these could help lessen your menstrual migraines. Alternatively, if you’re using hormonal birth control pills, switching to a continuous dose could be also effective in reducing menstrual migraines.
Studies have suggested that migraine sufferers tend to run lower on magnesium, and magnesium supplements may be used as a way to prevent migraines. Also, other studies have suggested that magnesium may work for menstrual migraines. However, since too much magnesium can be toxic, speak to your doctor first to work out if it’s suitable for you.
See your doctor for help with period headaches
Whether they’re tension-based or migraines, headaches during periods can really ruin your day. However, period headaches are not something you need to put up with: it’s not “just part of being a woman”! See a doctor if you think there’s a link between your period and your headache symptoms. Safe and effective treatments are available to help you take control of your symptoms.