STONE: Migraines are a risk factor for strokeLevi Stone is the chief nursing officer at ORMC. Contact him at

Headache disorders are the most common disorders of the central nervous system. And, according to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 50 percent of the adult population has had at least one headache within the past year.

While most headaches are nothing to be concerned about, some people suffer from debilitating headache disorders such as migraines or cluster headaches. Alarmingly, these types of headaches…particularly migraines, may have a connection with stroke. Research suggests migraine sufferers are at an increased risk of having a stroke within their lifetime.

Findings, published by the American Journal of Medicine, conclude experts aren’t for certain why the relationship exists nor if migraines themselves are a factor directly leading to strokes in some people. One particular syndrome, known as reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCV), occurs when blood vessels in the brain experience severe spasms, cutting off blood flow to portions of the brain.

One thing for though is certain, if you or a loved one does experience migraines, now is the best time to familiarize yourself about stroke. The most important thing to know about stroke, also known as a “brain attack”, is addressing any modifiable (those you can control) risk factors. Recognizing and acting upon signs and symptoms of a stroke is also just as important. Following a few basics can literally mean the difference of living normally versus spending the rest of our life with significant disabilities.

Migraine sufferers who also have cardiovascular disease or even a family history of cardiovascular disease are at even greater risk for stroke. Knowing this risks should prompt you to be more vigilant in controlling modifiable risk factors. Modifiable risk factors include controlling high blood pressure, managing diabetes, and abstaining from all forms of tobacco products. Many assume that smoking is exclusively tied to tobacco abuse, but this is also the case for any form of tobacco … including smokeless tobacco. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death.

By 2030, it is estimated that more than 8 million people will die as a result of tobacco use, many of which will include stroke. As for blood pressure and diabetes management, it is important to see your doctor or healthcare practitioner to monitor your progress. The most effective way to address these items is being diligent in adopting healthy lifestyle practices. If additional assistance is required, your doctor may prescribe a variety of therapies and/or medications to assure all is being done to further aid these preventive measures.

Finally, know and act immediately on signs of a stroke. The key word to understand is “sudden.” Signs and symptoms of a stroke, as well as transient ischemic attack (TIA)…also known as “mini-strokes” include:

SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body.

SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.

SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause.

Another important acronym to memorize is “FAST.” FAST was developed in 1998 and has been used worldwide by medical professionals and laypersons alike to quickly assess and respond to the needs of persons who may be experiencing a stroke. FAST is as follows:

F—Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A—Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one drift downward?

S—Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

T—Time: If you observe ANY of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately. (Remember, most strokes must be treated within 3 hours of symptom onset)

Chances are most people do not know stroke is the third leading cause of death and the number one cause of disability in the United States. Whether or not a correlation exists between migraines and stroke, be mindful and attentive in taking care of yourself. Those “killer” headaches could literally be telling us something.