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Can Migraine Be Life-Threatening? Separating Fact From Myth

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

Migraine is a condition often shrouded in misunderstanding and underestimation. Frequently dismissed as a bad headache, its impact is underrated and underreported. This oversight stems partly from the perception that migraine, while painful, are not “serious” in the way other medical conditions might be. However, this view overlooks the profound ways in which migraine can affect your life.

Living with migraine means more than just coping with pain; it involves navigating a condition that can unpredictably interrupt your daily activities, work, and personal life. The unpredictability and intensity of migraine episodes make planning and maintaining a “normal” routine challenging. Moreover, the lack of visible symptoms often leads to a lack of empathy and understanding from others, further exacerbating the emotional and psychological toll of the condition.

While the disease is not directly fatal, it can cause serious complications owing to the effect it has on your overall physical and mental health.

Prevalence and Impact of Migraine

Migraine is more than just a common health issue; it’s a pervasive condition affecting over a billion people globally. This high prevalence, however, doesn’t translate to widespread understanding or empathy, leading to a societal underestimation of its impact.

  • Global reach: Migraine affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, making it a universal health concern.
  • Frequency and severity: Some experience attacks infrequently, while others with chronic migraine live with 15 or more migraine days per month.

The impact of migraine extends far beyond the physical pain of an attack.

  • Daily life and productivity: Migraine attacks can disrupt your ability to perform everyday tasks, affecting work productivity and personal responsibilities. The unpredictability of attacks leads to a constant fear of the next episode, adding a layer of anxiety to everyday life.
  • Social and emotional toll: The condition can also strain social relationships, as the need to retreat to a dark, quiet space during an attack can be misunderstood as antisocial behavior. The invisible nature of the pain makes it hard for others to empathize or understand the severity of what you’re going through.
  • Long-term health effects: People with chronic migraine may face additional health challenges, including increased susceptibility to other medical conditions and the potential for medication overuse or side effects.

Migraine Complications

While migraine itself is not life-threatening, it can lead to several complications that significantly impact your health and quality of life. Understanding these complications, including comorbidities and mental health issues, is essential for anyone living with migraine.

Chronic Migraine

When migraine frequency is 15 or more days per month for more than three months, it is classified as chronic migraine. Chronic migraine can severely disrupt daily life, leading to increased disability and a higher risk of medication overuse.

Status Migrainosus

This is a rare and severe form of migraine where the headache lasts more than 72 hours. It requires immediate medical attention to prevent complications, including dehydration and medication overuse.


There are several comorbidities associated with migraine that can have serious, potentially fatal consequences.

  • Hypertension: People with chronic migraine may have a higher prevalence of hypertension. While hypertension itself is often symptomless, it’s a significant risk factor for more severe cardiovascular events.
  • Cardiovascular disorders: Studies have shown a correlation between migraine, especially with aura, and an increased risk of stroke and heart disease.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal problems are often reported by those with migraine.
  • Sleep apnea: There is a notable association between migraine and sleep disorders, including sleep apnea. Sleep apnea, especially if left untreated, can lead to serious conditions like heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
  • Psychiatric disorders: Beyond the increased risk of suicide linked to depression and anxiety disorders in people with migraine, severe psychiatric disorders can also have life-threatening implications if not properly managed.
  • Stroke: People, especially women under the age of 45 with migraine with aura, are at a higher risk of ischemic stroke. Strokes can be fatal or lead to severe, long-lasting disabilities.
  • Seizure disorders: There’s an increased prevalence of epilepsy in individuals with migraine. Severe or uncontrolled seizures can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon: Some people with migraine also experience Raynaud’s phenomenon, characterized by reduced blood flow to extremities. In severe cases, this leads to tissue damage and, in rare instances, may require surgical intervention.

It’s important to note that while these conditions can co-occur with migraine, their presence does not imply that migraine causes them. However, the association does call for increased vigilance in monitoring and managing these conditions.

Risks Associated With Migraine Complications

  • Medication overuse: One of the risks of frequent migraine attacks is the overuse of pain relief medication, leading to medication adaptation headaches and worsening the migraine condition.
  • Reduced quality of life: Chronic pain, disability, and the accompanying emotional and psychological burdens can significantly reduce the overall quality of life.

Migraine and Suicide Risk

One of the more concerning complications associated with migraine is an increased risk of suicide.

Research has indicated that individuals living with migraine, particularly those experiencing chronic migraine or migraine with aura, are at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared to the general population. This heightened risk is not solely due to the physical pain of migraine but is also intertwined with the psychological burden that chronic pain brings.

The constant debilitating and unpredictable pain episodes can lead to despair and hopelessness, exacerbating mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, which are already more prevalent among those with migraine.

Moreover, the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding migraine can contribute to a sense of isolation, further increasing the risk of mental health challenges and suicidal ideation.

Serious Conditions Often Confused With Migraine

Migraine attacks, particularly those with aura, can be mistaken for severe conditions like strokes, aneurysms, temporal arteritis, and meningitis due to overlapping symptoms such as severe headaches, speech difficulties, and vision problems.

However, these conditions differ in onset and accompanying symptoms, such as sudden intense pain from aneurysms or fever and neck stiffness in meningitis.

Navigating Misinformation About Migraine

Misinformation about migraine is widespread, often leading to misconceptions that undermine the severity of this neurological condition. This can affect treatment choices and delay proper medical consultation.

  • Seeking credible information: It’s vital to rely on information from health care professionals, reputable medical organizations, and scientifically backed resources.
  • Understanding the role of health care providers: Health care professionals are key in dispelling myths and offering evidence-based advice.
  • Using educational resources: Trusted migraine and health organizations provide accurate, comprehensive information on managing and treating migraine.
  • Online caution: While online communities offer support, always verify information from these sources with health care professionals.

Advocacy and awareness campaigns help spread accurate information and foster a more supportive environment for people with migraine.

The journey with migraine is unique for each individual. It’s important to note that while migraine is not life-threatening, it can be associated with other serious health conditions that require attention and care.

Getty image by Ekaterina Goncharova

Originally published: November 14, 2023
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