The Mighty Logo

Can Migraine Cause Seizures?

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Migraine and epilepsy are both neurological disorders with overlapping symptoms, which can sometimes lead to confusion. Research has explored this intersection, particularly looking at the rare occurrence of migralepsy — where a migraine attack with aura transitions into a seizure. This condition, while noteworthy, is not commonly seen in the majority of people with migraine.

Understanding Migralepsy

Migralepsy is a rare phenomenon where a migraine aura transitions into an epileptic seizure. It is most frequently associated with people who experience migraine with aura. It is recognized under specific circumstances, where you have a seizure during or immediately after a migraine attack with aura. The prevalence among people with migraine is low, but for those who do experience it, the aura phase of their migraine can segue into seizure activity.

Diagnostic Criteria for Migralepsy

The diagnosis of migralepsy is complex and should be made by a specialist after a thorough assessment, considering the complete clinical picture and investigation results.

  • Timing: Seizure occurs within an hour of a migraine aura.
  • Migraine History: A clear history of migraine with aura.
  • Aura Consistency: Aura symptoms before the seizure are consistent with the individual’s typical migraine auras.
  • EEG Confirmation: Electroencephalogram (EEG) may show evidence of epilepsy after the aura phase.
  • Exclusion of Mimics: Other causes of seizures, such as epilepsy without migraine or stroke, must be ruled out.

Differentiating Between Migraine Aura and Seizure Activity

Aspect Migraine Aura Seizure Activity
Onset Gradual; often begins with small visual disturbances that expand over minutes Abrupt; can occur suddenly with no gradual build-up
Duration Usually lasts between five to 60 minutes Variable; typically lasts from a few seconds up to a couple of minutes
Visual Symptoms Flashes of light, blind spots, zigzag patterns May include visual disturbances, but often more generalized or absent
Sensory Changes Tingling, numbness, typically on one side of the body Can include sensations but may also have a loss of awareness or consciousness
Motor Effects Rarely includes motor weakness; if present, referred to as hemiplegic migraine Commonly includes involuntary movements, loss of muscle control
Cognitive Impact Usually remains aware and conscious May experience altered consciousness, confusion, or loss of awareness
Post-Event Confusion Typically, none; can resume activities immediately Postictal state with confusion, disorientation, and fatigue may follow
Headache Often followed by the migraine headache phase Not typically followed by a headache, unless it is a postictal symptom


Diagnostic Clues

  • EEG patterns: An electroencephalogram (EEG) during the aura phase may be normal or show non-specific changes, while during a seizure, the EEG often shows clear evidence of electrical discharges that characterize seizure activity.
  • Response to stimuli: During a migraine attack with aura, people are usually responsive to external stimuli, whereas during a seizure, especially one involving loss of consciousness, there may be no response.
  • Recurrence and pattern: Migraine auras tend to recur in a similar pattern for a person, while seizures may vary significantly in manifestation.

The Neurological Basis

Both migraine attacks and seizures involve disruptions in brain activity. In migraine attacks, this disruption can cause a cascade of neurological symptoms, including the characteristic throbbing pain and nausea. Seizures, on the other hand, involve a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain, leading to convulsions and loss of consciousness.

Certain migraine sub-types exhibit symptoms that can be confused with or may potentially lead to seizure activity. These include:

  • Hemiplegic migraine: Presents with temporary paralysis or weakness on one side of the body, which can mimic stroke or seizure-like motor weakness.
  • Migraine with brainstem aura (previously basilar-type migraine): Involves symptoms such as ataxia, tinnitus, vertigo, and dysarthria, which overlap with signs of brainstem seizures.
  • Retinal migraine: Causes temporary, partial, or complete loss of vision in one eye and intense throbbing pain in the head. The visual symptoms can be similar to those seen in occipital lobe seizures.
  • Status migrainosus: A severe migraine attack that lasts for more than 72 hours. It can be so intense that it leads to dehydration and stroke-like symptoms, sometimes inducing seizure activity due to the stress on the body.
  • Complicated migraine: This term, though outdated, was previously used for migraine with prolonged aura symptoms, which can include visual disturbances, sensory changes, or speech difficulties, also present in focal seizures.

Recognition of these subtypes is crucial for appropriate treatment and avoiding misdiagnosis.

Role of Brain Chemicals and Electrical Activity

The role of brain chemicals and electrical activity in the intersection of migraine and seizures is pivotal. Here’s how they contribute:

  • Neurotransmitter fluctuations: Migraine attacks are often related to changes in neurotransmitter levels, like serotonin, which can influence both pain pathways and seizure susceptibility.
  • Cortical spreading depression (CSD): This wave of electrical activity across the brain is associated with migraine auras and may also lower the seizure threshold, creating conditions conducive to seizure activity.
  • Hyperexcitability: Both conditions involve heightened brain excitability. In migraine, this can lead to the typical aura symptoms; in seizures, it can result in uncontrolled electrical discharges.
  • Ion channel dysfunction: Abnormal function of ion channels, crucial for neuron signaling, can contribute to both migraine and seizure disorders, affecting the nervous system’s stability.

Understanding these biological mechanisms is essential for targeted treatments and may explain why some anti-epileptic drugs are effective in migraine prophylaxis.

Risk Factors for Seizures in Migraine Patients

There are several genetic and environmental factors influencing the risk for seizures in people with migraine.

  • Family history: A genetic predisposition to both migraine and epilepsy can increase seizure risk.
  • Stroke history: People with migraine with a history of stroke may have a higher seizure risk due to brain damage.
  • Frequent migraine attacks: People with chronic migraine, especially with aura, may be at increased risk for seizures.
  • Use of certain medications: Some medications used for migraine can lower the seizure threshold.
  • Severe and prolonged aura: Migraine attacks with unusual or prolonged aura may raise seizure risk.
  • Electrolyte imbalance: Dehydration or electrolyte imbalance during severe migraine can trigger seizures.
  • Hormonal fluctuations: For some, hormonal changes that provoke migraine may also influence seizure likelihood.
  • Stress and sleep deprivation: High stress and lack of sleep are common triggers for both migraine and seizures.
  • Alcohol or substance withdrawal: Withdrawal from alcohol or certain substances can trigger both migraine and seizures.
  • Head trauma: Past head injuries can lead to post-traumatic epilepsy and increase migraine frequency, potentially linking the two conditions.
  • Shared genetic markers: Some genetic markers are linked to both conditions.
  • Environmental triggers: Factors like bright lights or loud sounds can provoke migraine and seizures.
  • Neurotransmitter imbalances: Variations in serotonin and GABA levels can predispose individuals to migraine and seizures.
  • Epigenetic changes: Lifestyle can lead to gene expression changes, altering migraine and seizure risks.

Symptoms and Warning Signs of Seizures in Migraine

Here’s how you can recognize a seizure in people with migraine:

  • Sudden confusion: A rapid onset of disorientation or confusion.
  • Loss of consciousness: Fainting or blacking out unexpectedly.
  • Twitching or convulsions: Involuntary movements or shaking.
  • Sensory disturbances: Unusual sensations, smells, or sounds.
  • Sudden aphasia: Difficulty with speech or understanding language.
  • Unilateral weakness: Weakness or numbness on one side of the body.
  • Severe headache: A headache that is distinctly different in intensity or character from typical migraine pain.

Diagnosis of Seizures in Migraine Patients

  • Clinical evaluation: A thorough assessment of symptoms and medical history.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): To detect electrical activity in the brain characteristic of seizures.
  • Imaging tests:
    • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): Provides detailed brain images to exclude structural causes.
    • CT (computed tomography) scan: Used in urgent situations to rule out acute causes.

Treatment Options for Seizures in Migraine Patients

Medication management:

  • Anticonvulsants: Often used to manage seizure activity.
  • Migraine prophylaxis: Such as beta-blockers or anti-epileptic drugs that also serve as migraine preventatives.

Lifestyle adjustments:

  • Regular sleep: Establishing a consistent sleep pattern.
  • Stress reduction techniques, Such as mindfulness or biofeedback.
  • Dietary modifications: Avoid foods that trigger migraine or seizures.

Emergency management:

  • Acute treatments: For immediate seizure cessation, like benzodiazepines, under medical supervision.

Long-term management

  • Ongoing monitoring: Regular check-ups with a neurologist or headache specialist.
  • Education: Understanding triggers and early warning signs for better self-management.
  • Support networks: Engaging with support groups for chronic migraine and seizure disorders.

Living With Migraine and Seizure Risks

Management is about more than just medication — it’s about lifestyle adjustments. Ensuring regular sleep, managing stress, and avoiding known migraine triggers can help reduce the risk of seizures.

While the link between migraine and seizures is complex and often concerns those living with migraine, understanding the nuances of both conditions allows for better management and prevention strategies. With careful attention and the guidance of health care professionals, you can navigate the challenges of this aspect of living with migraine.

Getty image by Westend61

Originally published: November 13, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home