Learn about epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and how these brain diseases are linked to migraine.
Migraine has possible links to other brain diseases, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS) and fibromyalgia. Some of these diseases have symptoms that are similar to migraine, but they also have their own unique differences.
Learning about the other brain diseases linked to migraine is helpful, especially when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. But don’t worry, having migraine does not mean you have or will develop another brain disease. So first, let’s cover the basics. And, as always, if you have questions or concerns, be sure to talk with your doctor or headache specialist.
What is comorbidity?
Comorbidity is defined as the presence of two or more chronic medical conditions that occur together at a greater than coincidental rate than what appears in the general population.
Migraine is complex, and it is common to have migraine and at least one comorbidity. Common comorbidities of migraine include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- Chronic fatigue
- Sleep disorders
- Pain conditions like fibromyalgia
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
There are different theories about how these conditions are related to migraine. In some cases it’s possible that one disease causes the other, or there may be an underlying cause that triggers both diseases. As an example, an individual’s genetic makeup may make it more likely that they will develop migraine, anxiety and depression.
Let’s take a closer look at migraine and its links to epilepsy, MS and fibromyalgia. While these conditions are often comorbid with migraine, people with migraine will not necessarily develop one of these other diseases. We hope this information helps you better understand the diseases so you can discuss your options with your healthcare provider.
What is the link between migraine and epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a disorder characterized by abnormal brain activity that causes various types of seizures, and in some cases migraine and epilepsy can occur together. Someone with one of these diseases is at least twice as likely to have the other. People with migraine who develop epilepsy often have another risk factor, like a head injury or stroke.
Both migraine and epilepsy occur when a person’s brain becomes overexcited. While headache, nausea, numbness and aura are common for people with migraine, they are rare for people with epilepsy. Common triggers, such as stress, alcohol and changes in sleep, also set it off.
Migraine and epilepsy also have their differences. Epilepsy is a less common disease compared to migraine. Migraine attacks can last for hours or days, while seizures typically last for seconds to minutes. The disease is more common in female patients, while epilepsy affects males and females equally.
Migraine is sometimes thought of as a symptom of epilepsy because many people have head pain after a seizure. There’s no definitive evidence that migraine causes epilepsy. However, it’s possible, though rare, that migraine with aura could trigger a seizure. We refer to these migraine-induced seizures as migralepsy.
What is the link between migraine and MS?
MS is another comorbidity sometimes found with migraine. MS is a central nervous system disease that mostly affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves (nerves that connect the eyes to the brain). Doctors believe it to be a disease where the immune system attacks the protective coating around the nerves. This disrupts communication between the brain and different body parts.
MS and migraine have different causes but can have some similar symptoms. MS causes unpredictable attacks that can include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, fatigue and problems with coordination, balance and vision. People with MS are more than twice as likely to have headaches, including migraine. It’s not clear whether migraine is a symptom of MS or if the two diseases are just common comorbidities.
Some aspects of MS may make migraine symptoms more severe. A flare-up (an increase in MS symptoms) or certain treatments for MS may lead to more frequent or intense migraine attacks. Studies point to different theories about how migraine causes changes in hormones or increased brain inflammation that could raise a person’s risk for developing MS. Still, there is not much evidence to support these ideas.
What is the link between migraine and fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder marked by musculoskeletal pain (pain in the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and joints). It can cause fatigue and issues with sleep, memory and mood.
Migraine and fibromyalgia share common symptoms, such as head pain, sensitivity to light and noise and stomach issues. Both migraine and fibromyalgia are more common in females than males. In some studies, over 30% of people with migraine also had fibromyalgia, and almost 56% of people with fibromyalgia had migraine. In fact, there are close links between fibromyalgia and headaches, as tension-type headaches and migraine are some of the most common fibromyalgia symptoms. Additionally, having fibromyalgia can make migraine more severe.
The direct link between migraine and fibromyalgia still isn’t clear. Researchers are looking at central sensitization (when your central nervous system becomes overly sensitive to certain triggers, causing increased pain) as a possible cause. The triggers could be related to touch, noise, light, temperature or smell.
Treatments Across Different Brain Diseases
Treating migraine with comorbidities can be tricky because of possible drug interactions or side effects. Depending on the conditions, there may be few medication options. However, in some cases, a single treatment can treat both conditions. Nonmedical therapies like acupuncture, biofeedback or lifestyle changes can also help manage migraine and other brain diseases.
It’s important to discuss your treatment options with your doctor. Be sure to share all your symptoms. Additionally, tell them about any over-the-counter medications, vitamins or supplements you take. This information can help your doctor determine if your migraine symptoms are related to other brain disease symptoms.
If you have migraine and other comorbidities, it can be helpful to consult a headache specialist. These doctors are familiar with migraine and related brain diseases, so they can recommend a treatment plan that is effective across your conditions and does not cause interactions or worsen any symptoms.
The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine in children, visit the AMF’s Pediatric Migraine Content Hub. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.
Reviewed for accuracy by the American Migraine Foundation’s subject matter experts, headache specialists and medical advisers with deep knowledge and training in headache medicine. Click here to read about our editorial board members.