Migraine headaches are unlikely to cause death or brain damage directly. However, there may be an increased risk of cardiovascular events with migraine and an increased risk of stroke in people who have migraine with aura.

This article discusses the chance of death with migraine and the potential complications a person may experience.

It also looks at the long-term health effects of migraine and when a person should contact a doctor.

An MRI of a person's brain.Share on Pinterest
Derek Berwin/Getty Images

A large-scale 2020 study in women found no link between migraine and all-cause death. This included migraine with or without aura or a history of previous migraine. The term “all-cause death” refers to all deaths that occur in the population, regardless of the cause.

However, the researchers did find that migraine with aura can lead to an increased risk of death due to cardiovascular events.

According to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF), migraine can increase the risk of heart disease, including heart attacks and angina.

Migraine can also increase the risk of stroke, coronary events, and other related death by roughly 50%. It may also double the risk of heart disease from reduced blood flow.

Although the exact link between migraine and cardiovascular problems is not clear, it may be due to inflammation, blood clotting, and issues with the lining of the arteries.

There is also a link between migraine and stroke. In some cases, migrainous infarction can occur, which is a stroke that happens during a migraine attack.

The AMF states that stroke can also happen outside of a migraine headache and occurs more frequently in people who have or previously had migraine.

According to the American Headache Society, migraine does not result in long-term brain damage.

The organization references two population studies that took brain scans of people with and without migraine to study the long-term effects on the brain.

After 9–10 years, researchers found white lesions on the brain in some individuals with migraine, but these changes had no link to any changes in cognitive or brain function.

The AMF also confirms that research has found white matter lesions in some people with migraine, but that these lesions usually have no link with cognitive decline or neurological problems.

Migraine can cause the following complications.

Status migrainosus

A status migrainosus, or intractable migraine, is a severe migraine that lasts for more than 72 hours. Treatments that people usually use to treat migraine headaches may not be effective with intractable migraine.

Intractable migraine has the same symptoms as regular migraine, which includes:

  • a throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells

If usual treatments, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are not effective, individuals may need stronger prescription pain relievers or antinausea medications.

If symptoms do not improve, people may need treatment in hospital, which may involve:

  • intravenous fluids and medication
  • antinausea drugs, such as ondansetron
  • anti-seizure or antipsychotic drugs, such as valproate or chlorpromazine

Migrainous infarction

Migrainous infarction is an ischemic stroke that occurs during a migraine attack.

People may have an ischemic stroke, or infarction, during a migraine with aura. An ischemic stroke happens when a blood clot causes a blockage or narrowing in an artery that connects to the brain.

However, according to a 2017 article, it is rare and typically affects younger females.

People will need immediate medical attention if they suspect a migrainous infarction.

The article authors also note that the outlook is generally good for those with this condition. In those with ischemic stroke, treatment for migraine involves avoiding medications that can trigger migraine headaches, such as cilostazol. A healthcare professional may also prescribe calcium channel blockers and beta-adrenergic blockers to prevent migraine headaches.

Persistent aura without infarction

Persistent aura without infarction is a rare type of migraine with aura. In this type of migraine, people may have aura symptoms that last for a week or longer, with no signs of stroke.

If people have persistent aura without infarction, they will need to speak with a doctor. A healthcare professional may order imaging tests to find out what is causing the prolonged aura symptoms.

Migraine aura-triggered seizure

In some cases, a migraine attack with aura can trigger a seizure. These typically occur during or within 1 hour after the initial migraine attack.

Migraine is not likely to cause long-term brain damage or have a negative effect on brain function or cognitive ability.

Chronic migraine may negatively impact the quality of life for some people, with a risk of mental health or sleep issues for individuals with regular migraine.

Having migraine with aura roughly doubles the risk of having an ischemic stroke in a person’s lifetime compared to people without migraine. However, the overall risk of stroke due to migraine is minimal, with high blood pressure and smoking being higher risk factors.

According to the AMF, warning signs to watch out for with headaches include the following:

  • Thunderclap headache: A severe headache that reaches peak intensity within a few minutes.
  • Positional headache: A headache that significantly changes in intensity when people change position, such as standing up to lying down or vice versa.
  • Headaches that start from exertion: If a cough, sneeze, or straining causes a headache.
  • New headaches: If people start getting new, regular headaches, especially if over the age of 50 or if they have an existing medical condition such as a blood clotting disorder or cancer.
  • Significant change in headache pattern: A significant increase in the frequency of headaches or a significant difference in headache symptoms.
  • Constant headache: A constant headache that always occurs in the same area of the head or a headache that never stops.
  • Unusual migraine aura symptoms: If people have migraine with aura and unusual symptoms, such as symptoms lasting longer than 60 minutes, immediate onset of symptoms, or symptoms that do not completely resolve, they will need medical attention.

People will need to speak with a doctor if they have any of the above headaches or have concerns about migraine headaches. A doctor may carry out physical examinations and neurological tests to evaluate symptoms.

People will also need medical attention if they experience any unusual symptoms with headache, such as:

  • weakness on one side of the body
  • a change in consciousness
  • difficulty walking
  • fever
  • chills
  • weight loss
  • night sweats

Migraine headaches can feel severe but are rarely life threatening and unlikely to cause long-term brain damage.

Migraine with aura can increase the risk of migraine infarction, which is an ischemic stroke that occurs during a migraine attack. Migraine may also increase the risk of other cardiovascular events.

If people have any unusual symptoms with a headache or migraine headache, they can contact a doctor to see what might be causing the symptoms.

Individuals will require emergency medical attention if they have any symptoms of a stroke or cardiovascular event.