Researchers believe they have determined why more women than men get migraines, offering the potential for targeted treatments.
Sex hormones affect cells around the trigeminal nerve and connected blood vessels in the head, which researchers say contributes to the higher occurrence of migraine in men than in women, according to research published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.
They noted that estrogens, which are at their highest levels in women of reproductive age, most importantly play a role in sensitizing these cells to migraine triggers.
“There is no doubt about the existence of a sex difference prevalence in chronic pain conditions such as migraine, where the prevalence in women is two or three times greater than in men,” the researchers wrote. “Although the specific molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying this sex dimorphism are still under intense investigation, a pivotal role of sex hormones regulating the somatosensory system appears clear.”
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The researchers identified the specific roles of hormones by reviewing decades of literature on sex hormones, migraine sensitivity and cells’ responses to migraine triggers.
They found some like testosterone seem to protect against migraines but others, including prolactin, appear to worsen migraines.
The cells’ ion channels, which control the cells’ reactions to outside stimuli, are more or less vulnerable to migraine triggers, the researchers report.
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The researchers said estrogen is the key for understanding migraine occurrence.
“We can observe significant differences in our experimental migraine model between males and females and are trying to understand the molecular correlates responsible for these differences,” Dr. Antonio Ferrer-Montiel, of the Miguel Hernandez University in Spain, said in a press release. “Although this is a complex process, we believe that modulation of the trigeminovascular system by sex hormones plays an important role that has not been properly addressed.”
Because the roles of hormones in migraine are complex, the researchers said much more research is needed to understand it. And their work was based on in vitro and animal studies, which they said doesn’t necessarily apply to human migraine sufferers.