Illustration of person with headache. (Illustration by Peter Crowther / Ikon Images.)

“Our findings suggest that a history of migraine … could be useful in flagging women who may benefit from enhanced monitoring during pregnancy.”

Illustration by Peter Crowther/Ikon Images


Migraine history may be marker of pregnancy complications

4 min read

Study finds increased rates of preterm delivery, gestational hypertension, pre-eclampsia

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that women with prepregnancy migraine had a greater risk of complications, including preterm delivery, gestational hypertension, and pre-eclampsia.

Brigham and Women’s researchers analyzed data from thousands of women from the Nurses’ Health Study II to assess the relationship between migraine and pregnancy complications. In a paper published in Neurology, the team reports that migraine diagnosed prior to pregnancy is linked to the adverse outcomes, suggesting the condition may be a clinical marker of elevated obstetric risk.

“Preterm delivery and hypertensive disorders are some of the primary drivers of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality,” said first author Alexandra Purdue-Smithe, associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Our findings suggest that a history of migraine warrants consideration as an important risk factor for these complications and could be useful in flagging women who may benefit from enhanced monitoring during pregnancy.”

Women are two to three times likelier than men to experience migraine, and migraine is most prevalent among women between the ages of 18 and 44. For some, the migraine headaches can be accompanied by aura (5.5 percent of the population), which are usually visual disturbances that appear before onset of the headache.

Adverse pregnancy outcomes and migraine, especially migraine with aura, are each consistently associated with higher risk of coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke in women according to prior studies. The underlying biology responsible for these risks might also increase the likelihood of pregnancy complications. But only a few small or retrospective studies have examined migraine as a risk factor for pregnancy complications. No prospective studies have examined risks by aura phenotype (migraine with versus without aura).

Purdue-Smithe and colleagues analyzed data from the large, prospective Nurses’ Health Study II, which included 30,555 pregnancies from 19,694 U.S. nurses. Investigators looked at pre-pregnancy self-reported physician-diagnosed migraine and migraine phenotype (migraine with and without aura) and incidence of self-reported pregnancy outcomes.

Due to the large size of the study population and availability of data on other health and behavioral factors, researchers could control for potential confounding factors in their analyses, such as body mass index, chronic hypertension, and smoking.

Researchers found that prepregnancy migraine was associated with a 17 percent higher risk of preterm delivery, 28 percent higher rate of gestational hypertension, and 40 percent higher rate of pre-eclampsia compared to no migraine. Migraine with aura was associated with a somewhat higher risk of pre-eclampsia than migraine without aura. Migraine was not associated with low birth weight or gestational diabetes mellitus.

Participants with migraine who reported regular aspirin use (more than twice weekly) prior to pregnancy had a 45 percent lower risk for preterm delivery. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends low-dose aspirin during pregnancy for individuals at high risk of pre-eclampsia and those who have more than one moderate risk factor for pre-eclampsia. Clinical trials have shown that low-dose aspirin during pregnancy is also effective at reducing rates of preterm birth. However, Purdue-Smithe notes that migraine is currently not included among indications for aspirin use in pregnancy.

“Our findings of reduced risk of preterm delivery among women with migraine who reported regular aspirin use prior to pregnancy suggests that aspirin may also be beneficial for women with migraine. Given the observational nature of our study, and the lack of detailed information on aspirin dosage available in the cohort, clinical trials will be needed to definitively answer this question.”

Some other limitations of the study include that participants only reported if they had a physician-diagnosis of migraine, likely excluding those who did not have chronic or severe migraine. Further, aura was assessed after the migraine diagnosis and after many of the pregnancies in the cohort, possibly resulting in some degree of reverse causation in analyses examining migraine phenotype. Additionally, the cohort study consists of predominantly non-Hispanic white individuals with relatively high socioeconomic status and health literacy, which could limit generalizability.

Disclosures: Details about competing interests and disclosures are available at Funding: This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (U01 CA176726 and U01 HL145386). Paper cited: Purdue-Smithe AC et al. “Prepregnancy Migraine, Migraine Phenotype, and Risk of Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes” Neurology DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000206831.