Migraine and Multiple Sclerosis Connection

Migraines as a Possible Symptom or Predictor of MS

Mature woman with head in hands and eyes closed, close-up
MS and Migraine. Christopher Robbins / Getty Images

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a common neurological disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. In its early stages, symptoms of MS may be similar or confused with a migraine attack.

Let's explore the interesting connection between MS and migraines, including how their symptoms may overlap, and how MS lesions may cause worsening migraine.

How are MS and Migraines Alike?

The majority of patients with multiple sclerosis have a form of the disease called relapsing-remitting MS, which means their disease is characterized by episodes of neurological symptoms and/or disability, known as relapses.

Certain MS relapses (for example, optic neuritis) can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from a migraine attack, especially migraine with aura, where visual symptoms commonly occur. Another somewhat shared feature between these two neurological conditions is that like migraines, people with MS often report triggers for their relapses or attacks (stress being a major one).

Lastly, the "uniqueness" of both these chronic diseases among people is a common feature. While people with MS have different levels of disability and rates of progression of their disease, migraineurs often describe unique triggers and symptoms associated with their attacks. In other words, the experience of the disease varies greatly from person to person.

Are Migraines a Symptom of MS?

Migraines can occur in patients with MS. In fact, a headache may be the dominant symptom of an MS relapse. Moreover, the symptoms of migraine and MS can overlap, which can make an accurate diagnosis challenging.

In fact, sometimes a person is diagnosed with MS when they are really having migraines. This may occur when a patient sees a neurologist for their headaches and a magnetic resonance imaging or MRI of the brain is done which shows brain lesions called white matter lesions or plaques.

Just like people with MS, migraineurs can have white matter lesions on the brain, although the pattern is usually different from that seen in MS. This is why these lesions need to be interpreted carefully on an MRI. Of course, misdiagnosing MS (or vice versa) can be quite anxiety-provoking for the patient.

Is There a Link Between MS and Migraines?

Yes, although the relationship has not been fully teased out. In one study, published in Multiple Sclerosis, results showed that women with migraines prior to their diagnosis of MS had a 39 percent higher risk of developing MS when compared to the participants without migraines.

Keep in mind, though, the study also shows that the actual chance of developing MS over a 15-year follow-up of the women was 0.47 percent for women with migraines and 0.32 percent for women without migraines. This means that, regardless of whether or not you have migraines, your chance of developing MS is still extremely small, less than one percent.

Research also suggests an association between brainstem plaques and headaches in MS patients. In one study, when compared to patients without lesions in the brainstem, the patients with the lesions were more likely to suffer from both migraines and tension-type headaches.

The Science Behind the Link

There are a couple theories about the link between migraines and MS. One hypothesis suggests that a change in serotonin levels in the brain from migraine attacks could predispose individuals to MS.

Another theory is that the inflammation of the brain that occurs during migraine attacks may expose the myelin to T cells, the "attack" cells in MS.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, further studies are needed to both confirm the link between MS and migraines and provide data as to exactly why an association exists.

This all said, keep in perspective that the chance of developing MS is still very small regardless of your headache background.

Remain proactive in your healthcare and be candid in discussing your concerns or points of confusion with your doctor. You might be surprised to hear your doctor say that you are not alone and that he has heard this same concern from several other patients.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Applebee A. The clinical overlap of multiple sclerosis and headache. Headache. 2012 Oct;52 Suppl 2:111-6.
  • Elliott DG. Migraine in multiple sclerosis. 2007;79:281-302. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2007;79:281-302.
  • Kister I, Munger KL, Herbert J, & Ascherio A. Increased risk of multiple sclerosis among women with migraines in the Nurses' Health Study II. Mult Scler. 2012 Jan;18(1):90-7.
  • Lin GY, Wang CW, Chiang TT, Peng GS, Yang FC. Multiple sclerosis presenting initially with a worsening of migraine symptoms. J Headache Pain. 2013 Aug 9;14:70.