Many people experience headaches around the time of their periods. These headaches can be severe and interfere with daily life.
Period headaches may be mild and accompanied by symptoms such as irritability and tender breasts. In this case, a person may be experiencing premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Also, menstruation can trigger migraine in people with the condition. A menstrual migraine headache may occur before, during, or after a period.
This article will explain how periods can cause headaches, the difference between headaches brought on by PMS and migraine, and when a person should speak to a doctor.
During a menstrual cycle, the female body’s hormones rise and fall in preparation for pregnancy.
One cycle typically takes between 25 and 30 days. It runs from the first day of one period to the first day of the next.
Estrogen and progesterone are hormones that help regulate the menstrual cycle, and the levels of these hormones may affect the severity and prevalence of headaches.
According to a 2014 review, for example, acute migraine headaches may occur when the level of estrogen in the body drops significantly.
Hormones play a role in headaches because they govern the body’s pain response.
Females become more vulnerable to headaches as their levels of estrogen and progesterone fluctuate.
When a person experiences headaches around the time of their periods, the pain may stem from PMS or menstrual migraine.
A menstrual migraine headache typically occurs before, during, or immediately after a period. These headaches can also occur during ovulation.
Around 60% of females who experience migraine report that menstruation is a trigger for these headaches.
The symptoms may be similar to those of any other migraine headache, though the headaches that occur close to a period may not accompany sensory disturbances.
However, some people do experience auras — such as flashing lights or blind spots in the field of vision, or a tingling sensation in the hands or face — before a menstrual migraine headache.
Other symptoms of a menstrual migraine headache tend to include:
- sensitivity to bright lights
- sensitivity to noise
- throbbing pain on one side of the head
PMS headaches typically occur before a period begins.
PMS refers to a group of symptoms that 95% of females of reproductive age experience before their periods start each month.
The symptoms usually appear 1–2 weeks before a period starts.
Beyond headaches, symptoms of PMS may include:
- food cravings
- tender, swollen breasts
- fluid retention
- sleep disturbances
- joint and muscle aches
- anxiety or tension
- mood swings
Hormones affecting headaches during pregnancy
Because of the link between hormones and headaches, women may be more likely to experience migraine headaches during pregnancy.
According to an article published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, estrogen levels can increase 100-fold during pregnancy, which can influence migraine activity.
Also, it is important to note that a headache can be a symptom of preeclampsia, a potentially serious blood pressure disorder that can affect every organ.
Healthcare providers are usually able to detect preeclampsia during regular checkups. If a woman experiences symptoms, they may include:
- a headache that persists
- swelling of the face or hands
- changes in eyesight
- sudden weight gain
- shoulder pain
- nausea and vomiting
Anyone who believes that they may have preeclampsia should seek medical attention.
Learn more about preeclampsia here.
The treatment for menstrual migraine headaches depends on the severity of the pain. A person can take medications, such as:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including acetaminophen and ibuprofen
A doctor may prescribe frovatriptan, zolmitriptan, or other triptans for short-term migraine headache prevention.
Learn more about how to treat migraines here.
Over-the-counter pain relief medications such as ibuprofen can help treat headaches that occur because of PMS. A doctor may also prescribe:
Certain lifestyle changes can also help treat symptoms of PMS, including:
- getting enough sleep
- eating a healthful diet
- getting regular exercise
Acetaminophen is generally a safe medication for headaches during pregnancy.
Pregnant women should refrain from taking pain relievers that contain codeine and avoid NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, unless a doctor advises otherwise.
Taking dietary supplements — such as riboflavin, magnesium, and coenzyme — may also help manage migraine headaches that occur during pregnancy.
If period headaches interfere with daily life, talk to a doctor.
When PMS is the underlying issue, a range of treatments can help, including hormonal contraception, antidepressant medication, and calcium supplements.
The right course of treatment will depend, in part, on the severity and specific symptoms.
Healthcare professionals can recommend ways to help prevent menstrual migraine headaches. They can also prescribe stronger pain relief medication, when necessary.
In pregnant women, a persistent headache can be a symptom of preeclampsia. Anyone who thinks that they may be experiencing this potentially serious issue should seek medical attention.
Hormones control the body’s pain response. During the menstrual cycle, hormone levels fluctuate as the body prepares for pregnancy, and this ebbing and flowing can lead to headaches.
Headaches that occur before, during, or immediately after a period may stem from PMS or menstrual migraine.
Over-the-counter pain relief medication can often ease mild headaches. Anyone who experiences severe pain or any discomfort that interferes with daily life should speak to a doctor.