Scientists in the U.S. are suggesting that people with migraines may also be suffering from some form of brain damage.
The scientists have found evidence that migraines may also be acting like tiny transient strokes, leaving parts of the brain starved for oxygen and altering the brain in significant ways.
The scientists at the University of Rochester in New York along with a team at the Danish pharmaceutical group Novo Nordisk have found in studies with mice concerning a process called cortical spreading depression (CSD), that a wave of changes in cells is the same in migraine as in stroke and head trauma.
The researchers led by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist, found as brain cells swell and become starved of oxygen similar brain damage can occur as with concussions and strokes.
They say their finding may help explain why migraine sufferers have a higher risk of stroke.
Their findings suggest that migraine sufferers should not simply seek pain relief but should instead take drugs to prevent the migraine, which is often preceded by an "aura", a series of visual disturbances that can include flashes of light or black areas.
The research team suggests giving oxygen may help reduce the damage.
By combining two recently developed imaging technologies, Nedergaard's team was able to achieve an unprecedented look at the process the brain of a mouse experiences as a migraine unfolds.
The team discovered a complex chain of supply and demand regarding blood flow and oxygen.
They saw a swelling occur and the brain cells became starved of oxygen followed by damage to nerve cells specifically the dendrites, the long, thin spikes that stretch from one nerve cell to another.
The researchers say the revelation has clinical implications, as other research has found that cortical spreading depression constitutes the neurological basis of migraine with aura, and spontaneous waves of CSD may contribute to secondary injury in stroke and traumatic brain injury.
Nedergaard says the visual disturbances known as auras that many migraine sufferers report that precede the headaches, in at least one out of four migraine sufferers which might involve floating black spots, flashing light, or some other visual changes, might actually be a visual sign that parts of the brain are short of oxygen.
As many as affecting 28 million people in the United States are affected by the severe and debilitating form of headache - migraine.
Women are far more likely to suffer from migraine and as a rule common pain medications have little effect.
However a class of drugs called triptans, also called serotonin agonists, and ergotamine drugs, can be used to prevent the worst effects if patients take them at the first sign, for example when an aura first begins.
The researchers found that by giving the mice rich doses of oxygen the wave of brain effects seen in CSD appeared to shorten the duration of the wave of brain effects.
Apparently migraine and cluster headache patients are sometimes treated with high-pressure oxygen.
The researchers say it remains unclear whether the effects of migraine are permanent, and earlier research differs on the issue.
The research is published in the current issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.