H. Pylori Infection and Migraines

H. pylori
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It's not clear exactly what causes migraines, but more and more, research is showing that the gastrointestinal (GI) system may play a big role. Many GI disorders are found to co-occur with migraine, one of the most common of which is Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection.

A migraine attack is a debilitating, neurological condition that impacts your functioning, in addition to inflicting pain. While your GI tract may seem completely unrelated, the possible migraine/H. pylori connection is just one more example of the many ways in which experts are linking overall health to gut health.

A Common Stomach Bacteria

H. pylori is a bacterium that's found in the stomach and is present in approximately half of the world's population. It's spread by eating food and/or drinking water that contains fecal matter.

Despite its widespread prevalence, it doesn't usually cause symptoms. When it does, an H. pylori infection can create inflammation in your stomach (gastritis) or duodenum (duodenitis), which is the first part of the small intestine.

Symptoms of gastritis/duodenitis include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Belching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling full
  • Loss of appetite

Other complications of H. pylori include ulcers in the stomach or duodenum that may cause bleeding. Stomach cancer is a rare outcome of H. pylori.

Typically, treatment to eradicate an H. pylori infection involves taking two antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) for 14 days. Your doctor then re-tests you after you finish the medications to ensure the bacteria has been cleared.

Association With Migraines

The potential link between H. pylori infection and migraine is being investigated for several reasons, including:

  • Role of the GI system: H. pylori infection has been found to be a cause of multiple health problems that don't have to do with the GI system, including neurological diseases.
  • Potentially similar mechanisms: Like migraine, H. pylori infection is believed to cause chronic inflammation. It's also, like migraine, associated with vascular changes, specifically the narrowing of blood vessels.
  • Infection: Migraine has been associated with infections in the body, including gastrointestinal infection. The most common cause of this type of infection is H. pylori.
  • Overlapping symptoms: H. pylori infection and migraine share nausea and vomiting as symptoms.

Because of these associations and similarities in the symptoms and processes of migraine and H. pylori infection, the link between the two, as well as the connection between migraine and other GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is being researched.

What the Research Says

Limited research has been done on the association between H. pylori and migraine, but here's what we do know.

Prevalence

A 2011 study looked at the antibody levels to H. pylori (IgG and IgM) of 70 patients with migraine compared to those of 70 patients without migraine. The H. pylori antibodies were overall significantly higher in the migraine group than in the non-migraine group.

In a similar 2015 study, the researchers compared the IgG and IgM levels of 84 patients with migraine and 49 people without it. Though IgG levels didn't vary much between the two groups, those with migraine had higher IgM levels than those without, emphasizing the potential role of an active H. pylori infection in those with migraine.

Interestingly, there was also a strong correlation between IgG levels and migraine severity: The higher the participant's IgG level, the higher the reported severity of migraines. This was the same whether patients experienced migraine with or without aura.

Older, similar studies on prevalence have been a mixed bag, with some also finding a high prevalence of H. pylori infection in people with migraines, and others finding no differences in the prevalence of H. pylori infection between people with migraine and people without.

One notable 2000 study found no difference in the prevalence of H. pylori between migraineurs and non-migraineurs (infection rates were 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively). But in the people who were infected, there was a much higher presence of a specific strain of H. pylori in those who had migraine with aura than in those without aura and the participants who didn't have migraines at all.

Different strains of H. pylori, which can vary by region, and the differences between subtypes of migraine may explain some of the inconsistencies in the results of the studies performed so far.

Eradication

In a 2012 study of 64 Iranian patients with migraine, half blindly received treatment for migraine, as well as antibiotics to treat H. pylori. The other half received migraine treatment and a placebo. All of the participants completed a Migraine Disability Assessment (MIDAS) before and after treatment.

The group that received treatment for H. pylori had a significant decrease in their MIDAS score compared to the placebo group, which suggests that eradicating or treating H. pylori may diminish migraine severity.

The few other studies that have been done so far on eradicating H. pylori to help migraines have also shown at least some benefit, though the long-term outcomes are unclear.

The Bottom Line

While there does indeed appear to be a link between H. pylori infection and migraine, an association does not imply causation. More studies are needed to better understand the precise relationship between H. pylori and migraine.

A Word From Verywell

GI disorders appear to be significantly related to migraine, but we're not at the point where headache specialists are testing for and treating them as a standard of medical care. However, it's possible that screening for H. pylori infection and other GI disorders in people with migraine may become more common in the future as doctors increasingly recognize the potential relationship between the two.

If you have symptoms of an H. pylori infection or any other GI disorder like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), IBS, or gastroparesis, be sure to talk to your doctor about getting tested. Treating any underlying GI disorders you may have could improve your overall quality of life and may help reduce the frequency and severity of your migraines as well.

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