What Causes Migraine? The Risk Factors You Need To Know | MyMigraineTeam

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What Causes Migraine? The Risk Factors You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Angelica Balingit, M.D.
Written by Kelly Crumrin
Updated on May 24, 2024

Current research shows that migraine is a neurological disorder, caused by a dysfunction of the nerve cells inside the brain. Researchers aren’t yet sure exactly which neurological processes cause migraine attacks. During a migraine attack, many changes occur in various parts of the brain that involve inflammation, swelling, the release of proteins, and increased sensitivity to stimulation. Researchers believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors cause people to develop migraine — and this combination will vary from person to person.

Risk Factors for Migraine

Many risk factors for migraine have been identified and are being studied, but none have been pinpointed as the sole cause of migraine. Family history, other health conditions, one’s age and sex, hormone levels, sleep patterns, and certain changes in the environment can all contribute to the likelihood of migraine attacks. It’s important to note that although science is good at finding correlations, or apparent relationships, between factors and disease, correlation does not prove that the risk factor causes the disease.

Genetics and Family History

Genetic studies have identified multiple genes in different locations that are linked to the development of migraine. Certain types of migraine have clear patterns of genetic inheritance.

If you have a relative who has migraine attacks, you may be more likely to have migraine than someone without a family history of the condition. Research indicates that inherited factors may account for as much as 30 percent to 60 percent of the risk for migraine. For this reason, most researchers agree that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of migraine.

Age and Sex

Age is a risk factor in migraine. Migraine attacks begin before age 40 in more than 90 percent of people with migraine.

Women are three times more likely to develop migraine than men. Women are also more likely to develop chronic migraine — defined as experiencing migraine symptoms at least 15 days in each month. About 85 percent of those with chronic migraine are women, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.

If you have migraine attacks and menstruate, you might experience spikes in symptoms at certain points in your menstrual cycle when hormones fluctuate. In fact, more than half of people with migraine notice this pattern. Menstrual migraine attacks may begin during adolescence, peak in the 30s, and taper off after menopause.

Other Health Conditions

People with migraine are more likely to have certain comorbid conditions (having two or more health conditions at the same time) than people who do not have migraine attacks. Sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and epilepsy have all been associated with migraine.

Environmental Triggers

Researchers have identified several factors in the environment that are known for triggering migraine attacks. No one person will have all of these triggers, or even most of them. Still, familiarizing yourself with known migraine triggers can help you to notice whether their presence in your life seems to lead to a migraine attack.

Common migraine triggers include:

  • Low blood sugar, fasting, and skipping meals
  • Mental stress
  • Physical overexertion
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Too little or too much sleep
  • Alcohol and feeling hungover
  • Caffeine
  • Tobacco
  • Hormonal changes and menstruation
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Loud sounds
  • Sudden changes in weather
  • Dehydration
  • Certain foods

If you do notice some of these factors influencing your own migraine attacks, make a note of when they happen and talk it over with your doctor. Your doctor or a neurologist can help you create a treatment plan that allows you to reduce exposure to your triggers and take the best care of yourself.

​​Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMigraineTeam is the social network for people with migraine and their loved ones. On MyMigraineTeam, more than 82,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with migraine.

What triggers your migraine attacks? Do you have a family history of migraine? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on May 24, 2024
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Angelica Balingit, M.D. is a specialist in internal medicine, board certified since 1996. Learn more about her here.
Kelly Crumrin is a senior editor at MyHealthTeam and leads the creation of content that educates and empowers people with chronic illnesses. Learn more about her here.

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