Are Migraines and Epilepsy Connected?
There has been relatively little medical interest in finding the commonalities and connection between migraines and epilepsy.
Still, some people suffer from both seizures and migraines, and the two types of events come from the same brain cells. This has led some researchers to probe deeper into the connection, and in the last few years to paint a clearer picture of how the two conditions may be connected.
What Are Migraines?
A migraine is a severe form of a headache. It is usually one-sided, throbbing in nature and may be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Aversion to light
- Aversion to sound
An aura is something which some people experience before the onset of a migraine. Migraine auras vary from person to person. They might involve visual disturbances such as flashing lights or blind spots, smelling or hearing something which is not there, tingling or numbness.
Not everybody who suffers from migraines will experience an aura, and in some cases, it is possible to have a migraine aura but no headache.
What Causes Migraines?
It is unclear exactly why some people suffer from migraines, but there are a number of different factors which seem to play a role. Migraines are more common in women than men, and there also appears to be a genetic link.
It is thought that when a migraine is triggered, changes occur in the chemicals, nerves and blood vessels within your brain. These changes are responsible for causing the symptoms of a migraine.
A number of different things can trigger migraines. The most common triggers include:
- Hormonal changes (migraines are more common in women around the time of their period).
- Certain foods and drinks such as cheese, chocolate, citrus fruit, caffeine, and alcohol.
What Is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a condition in which sudden increases in electrical activity are happening within the brain. This causes what are known as seizures or fits. There are many different types of seizure, including:
- Jerking or shaking (also known as tonic-clonic seizures).
- Staring blankly into space (absence seizures).
- Loss of muscle tone and collapse (atonic seizures).
Depending on the type of seizure, the sufferer may lose consciousness, or they may be aware of what is happening. Some people also experience a strange smell or taste just before a seizure occurs.
Following an epileptic seizure, the sufferer may feel disorientated, confused or tired and will often need to rest.
What Causes Epilepsy?
Like migraines, it is still unclear exactly why some people develop epilepsy, although there does seem to be a genetic link. It usually develops either in childhood or after the age of 60. It is also possible to develop epilepsy due to brain damage from trauma, strokes, tumors, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Epileptic seizures can happen at any time, but they can also be triggered by:
- Bright, flashing lights or images
- Missed doses of medication
Epilepsy is a long-term health condition, but in some cases, it can resolve by itself over time.
Are Migraines and Epilepsy Comorbid?
There does appear to be a link between migraines and epilepsy. In many cases, people with epilepsy also suffer from migraines. This has prompted scientists to research the relationship between these two conditions.
Research on migraine and epilepsy has shown that people with a strong family history of seizure disorders are also more likely to suffer from migraines with aura.
This suggests that the same gene may be responsible for both conditions. If proven, this could have significant implications in understanding and treating both migraines with aura and epilepsy.
No definite link has been found between migraines without aura and epilepsy.
Differentiating Between Migraines and Epilepsy
There are some similarities between migraines and epilepsy, and many significant differences.
Both can be triggered by factors such as stress, tiredness and alcohol, and both cause changes in brain function. Migraines and epilepsy can both cause symptoms such as sensory changes just before an attack, suggesting that the same brain pathway may be involved.
One of the most important differences between migraines and epilepsy is the duration of an episode. Epileptic seizures come on quickly and normally last just one or two minutes, whereas a migraine comes on more slowly and may last for hours or even days.
Another major difference is that during an epileptic seizure, consciousness may be lost. During a migraine, the sufferer remains conscious throughout, although they may be forced to try and “sleep it off.”
If necessary, EEG tests can be used to provide a definite differentiation between migraines and epilepsy and give an accurate diagnosis.
Treatment of Migraines and Epilepsy
Both migraines and epilepsy are long-term health conditions, but the symptoms can be managed with the right treatment.
Migraines can be treated using painkillers, anti-sickness medication, or a class of drugs known as triptans. Triptans can be taken at the first sign of a migraine, and if used early enough, may prevent it from developing.
Epilepsy can be treated with various anti-seizure medications including sodium valproate, carbamazepine, and topiramate. In severe cases, surgery may be an option. It is also thought that eating a ketogenic diet could help to control epileptic seizures.
In the case of both migraines and epilepsy, it is important to identify and avoid any potential triggers. Some people find that keeping a diary helps with this.
Living with Migraines and Epilepsy
If you suffer from migraines, epilepsy, or both, it is still possible to live a normal and fulfilling life. Once you have identified your triggers, you can actively avoid them to reduce your risk of migraines or seizures.
Eat well, get enough sleep, take any prescribed medication as advised, and avoid missing doses. And if you have any sudden changes in your symptoms, discuss them with your physician.
Doing these few simple things should help you keep your symptoms under control and reduce the effects of your condition on your quality of life.