Fluctuating hormones during your menstrual cycle can bring about many changes. And like some women, you may deal with headaches during this time of the month.
Different types of headaches can happen around your period. One type is a tension headache — often caused by stress — that feels like a tight band around your forehead. Or you may develop a headache after your period due to blood loss and a drop in your iron level.
But among the different types of headaches that can occur during your period, a hormonal headache and a menstrual migraine seem to be the most common. The underlying cause is the same for both, yet their symptoms vary.
Here’s what you need to know about hormone-induced headaches, as well as ways to stop the throb.
A change in hormone level can trigger a hormonal headache and a menstrual migraine. Hormones regulate many of your body’s functions.
Women who have headaches during their period can develop one before their cycle, during their cycle, or after their cycle.
Headaches result from changing levels of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is a female sex hormone. It travels through the bloodstream delivering messages to different parts of the body.
Estrogen levels rise midway through your menstrual cycle. This prompts the release of an egg. Progesterone is another important hormone. Rising levels of this hormone help an egg implant in the uterus.
After ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary), hormone levels decline. Estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest right before your period. It’s this decrease that makes some women more likely to experience headaches.
You can have a hormonal headache at other times, too. Some women have more headaches during menopause or perimenopause due to a drop in hormones.
Pregnancy can also trigger headaches because hormone levels can fluctuate over nine months.
While a hormonal headache and a menstrual migraine are both caused by fluctuating hormones, the difference between the two involves the severity of the head pain.
A hormonal headache may be mild to moderate and cause a nagging ache or throb. It’s a nuisance and uncomfortable, but it might not interfere with your day-to-day routine.
A menstrual migraine, on the other hand, can be debilitating. According to the National Headache Foundation, menstrual migraine affects about 60 percent of women.
If you regularly experience migraine attacks, you may be susceptible to menstrual migraine.
A menstrual migraine differs from a regular migraine in that it isn’t usually associated with an aura. Aura refers to flashing lights, zigzag lines, or other sensory experiences that some people experience before a migraine attack.
A menstrual migraine is characterized by severe throbbing that can start on one side of the forehead and travel to the other. The severity can make it difficult to keep your eyes open, work, or even think.
Symptoms that come with a menstrual migraine include:
With both a hormonal headache and a menstrual migraine, you may also experience typical menstrual symptoms, including:
- extreme fatigue
- joint pain or muscle soreness
- constipation or diarrhea
- food cravings
- mood changes
Treatment for a hormonal headache and a menstrual migraine depend on the severity.
Over-the-counter pain relievers are often effective. These drugs can also ease tension headaches and headaches caused by a low iron level.
Medications to stop pain and inflammation include:
- naproxen sodium
Caffeine is another effective remedy for hormonal headaches. Eating chocolate and drinking caffeinated tea or soda may take the edge off your discomfort. In fact, some medications for PMS contain caffeine as an ingredient.
Go easy on the caffeine, though. Caffeine is addictive and consuming too much during your period could cause physical dependence. Abruptly stopping caffeine after your period could trigger a withdrawal headache.
Depending on the severity of your menstrual migraine, over-the-counter medications may not provide the desired results. You can experiment with the above medications, but you may need hormone therapy if symptoms don’t improve.
Administering this therapy before your menstrual cycle can help balance your hormone levels. Your doctor may recommend supplemental estrogen (Estradiol) to correct an imbalance.
If you use hormonal birth control, skipping the placebo week may also help balance your hormone levels and stop menstrual migraine.
You can also ask your doctor about triptans. These are a class of drugs designed to treat severe migraine. These medications work by stimulating serotonin. This helps reduce inflammation and constricts your blood vessels, thus stopping or preventing a migraine.
Other prescription drugs used to treat migraine include:
- dihydroergotamine and ergotamine
If you experience severe vomiting or nausea with a menstrual migraine, ask your doctor about prescription anti-nausea medication.
Along with traditional medication, a few home remedies may relieve a sharp, throbbing sensation and help you manage a hormonal headache.
Wrap an ice pack in a towel and apply it to your forehead (10 minutes on, 10 minutes off). Cold therapy can reduce inflammation and dull the sensation of pain.
Exercises like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can relax your muscles, reduce tension, and improve headache symptoms.
Learning how to relax also teaches you how to control different functions of your body, like your heart rate and blood pressure. Less muscle tension and stress may reduce the severity of your headaches.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into different pressure points throughout your body. It stimulates the release of endorphins, which are hormones naturally produced by the body to help you cope with stress and pain.
Get enough rest
Too little sleep can make headaches worse. Aim for at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Improve your sleep environment for better rest. Turn off the TV and lights, and keep your room at a comfortable temperature.
Experiment with vitamins
According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamins like vitamin B-2, coenzyme Q10, and magnesium may reduce the severity of migraine attacks. Talk to your doctor before starting a supplement, especially if you’re pregnant or currently taking medications.
Massage therapy can promote muscle relaxation and reduce tension in your shoulders, back, and neck. It may also reduce the severity and frequency of tension headaches and migraine attacks.
See a doctor if you have frequent and severe headaches during your period. Your doctor can discuss the possibility of hormone therapy or prescribe medication.
You should also see a doctor for any headache that has the following symptoms:
- mental confusion
- double vision
- trouble speaking
These headaches may not be related to your period, but rather to a serious medical condition.
Many women experience hormonal headaches and menstrual migraine, but relief is available. You can self-treat with over-the-counter medications and home remedies. If your symptoms worsen or don’t improve, see your doctor to discuss other alternatives.