18 April 2017

A healthier weight may mean fewer migraines

A study found that the risk of migraine was higher in both obese and underweight people.


Migraines can sometimes last for days, and people will go to any lengths to obtain relief from the debilitating pain.

Some people swear by warm baths or showers, while others believe in the power of caffeine to increase the effectiveness of painkillers.

And now a new review has found that your weight just might influence your risk of migraine headaches.

"Those with migraine and [their] doctors need to be aware that excessive weight and extreme weight loss are not good for [migraine sufferers], and that maintaining a healthy weight can decrease the risk of migraine," said study corresponding author Dr B. Lee Peterlin.

She is director of headache research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

The review was published in the journal Neurology.


"Healthy lifestyle choices in terms of weight management and diet and exercise are warranted," she added.

Migraines affect about 12% of US adults, according to background information from Johns Hopkins. These debilitating headaches are often accompanied by throbbing, nausea and sensitivity to light and sounds.

Another approach involves non-drug treatment which works by diagnosing where the pain is actually coming from. In migraines it is often either in the muscles of the jaw and neck or the arteries of the scalp. The best treatment for the muscle component of migraine pain is by means of a plate worn in the palate, and in the case of arteries, they can be treated surgically.

According to a Health24 article  about 20% of the population get a migraine headache sometime in their life. This percentage has been shown to be constant across races, cultures and income groups, which means that about 11 million South Africans are affected.

Peterlin's team evaluated 12 previously published studies with nearly 300 000 people, a process known as a meta-analysis.

The investigators found that obese people were 27% more likely to have migraines than people who were at a normal weight.

And those who were underweight were 13% more likely to have migraines.

A 'moderate' link

The researchers used the standard definitions of both obesity – a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher – and underweight – a BMI of less than 18.5. A person who is 162cm tall and weighs 78.8kg has a BMI of 30, while someone of the same height who weighs 47.3g has a BMI of 18.

In previous research, Peterlin's team found that the link between obesity and migraines was greater for women and for those under the age of 55. This new study reaffirmed those findings.

The new review found that the link between obesity and migraines is a moderate one, Peterlin said. It's similar to the link between migraines and ischaemic heart disease, in which the heart doesn't get enough blood, she added.

Peterlin said she can't explain with certainty how body composition affects migraine risk. But, she speculated that fat tissue "is an endocrine organ and like other endocrine organs, such as the thyroid, too much and too little cause problems".

The change in fat tissue that occurs with weight gain or extreme weight loss alters the function and production of several proteins and hormones, Peterlin explained, changing the inflammatory environment in the body. This could make a person more prone to a migraine or it could trigger a migraine, she said.

Read more:

Migraine triggers

Migraine helpline launched

Symptoms of migraine


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules