Study Finds Connection Between Migraine, Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Researchers say there appears to be a dual connection between rheumatoid arthritis and migraine.
  • They say people who have migraine are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, and people with this type of arthritis are more likely to develop migraine.
  • They say women are at higher risk of both RA and migraine, and recommend getting screened more often for both conditions.

A new study confirms a painful truth that many people with rheumatoid arthritis already suspected:

There’s an apparent bidirectional relationship between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and migraine.

What does “bidirectional” mean, exactly? Simply put, researchers say these study results have shown that people with migraine are more likely to develop this type of arthritis. And, on the flip side, people with RA are also more likely to develop migraine.

Migraine is a debilitating medical condition. The World Health Organization states that migraine attacks and tension-type headaches “are of public health importance since they are responsible for high population levels of disability and ill health.”

Arthritis in general is the leading cause of work disability in the United States. RA can cause loss of wages and, like chronic migraine, can take a toll on both life expectancy and quality of life. It can impact not just the joints but many organs and body systems.

Dealing with two conditions

Navigating both RA and migraine can be difficult.

As with RA, migraine has an unknown underlying cause, but it’s affected by a number of factors, including the immune system, inflammation, environment, lifestyle choices, and genetics.

The recent study is one of only a few that actually explore the bidirectional links and commonalities between migraine and RA.

Some of this previous research has indicated or suggested that a shared mechanism involving inflammatory processes and immune responses might account for the link between these conditions. Poor quality of sleep, obesity, and smoking can exacerbate them.

However, there are still a lot of unknowns, and not all these processes or similarities are understood.

“Based on the common pathophysiologic mechanisms of inflammation, vascular endothelial cells and the immune system between migraine and RA, we hypothesized that there might be a bidirectional association between migraine and RA,” the researchers wrote in this new study.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq, founder of the brainSHIFT Institute and chief wellness officer at Evolution Hospitality, told Healthline that “rheumatoid arthritis is an example of an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in blood vessels all over the body, not just in joints.”

“There has been a previous correlation with known RA patients getting migraine headaches more frequently, thought to be due to vasculitis in the brain,” she added. “Monitoring for RA exacerbation would be key as well as treating the migraines.”

Mushtaq recommends more screening for both migraine and RA, especially among women.

“As a neurologist specializing in integrative medicine, it would be key to think about screening female patients with migraine for symptoms and lab evaluations to diagnose underlying rheumatoid arthritis.

“The exact underlying pathology or cause of migraine headaches is not clear but has long been attributed to inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain. What causes inflammation? Autoimmune diseases like RA is a known etiology (cause),” Mushtaq said.

Sex could play a role, too. The researchers added that RA was not necessarily correlated with an increased risk of migraine in men over age 60.

However, this may be because migraine is more often found in women and in those ages 25 to 55. RA is more common in women, too.

“This study is different because we also now see that women who have migraine headaches are more prone to RA than women without migraine headaches. The same correlation was not seen in men,” Mushtaq said.

“This clinical study is important to make sure women are being screened for autoimmune diseases in the neurologist’s office. And in the rheumatologist’s office, it is critical to screen for migraine headaches.

“Migraine headaches continue to be underdiagnosed, especially in women. This clinical study adds an additional highlight to women’s brain health by showing the importance of diagnosing migraine headaches versus other types of headaches,” she said.

Personal stories

For people who live with RA and migraine, the connection between the two conditions makes sense.

“I have RA. I have migraines,” Sam R., 57, an Arkansas resident, told Healthline. “When either act up, it’s bad. When both act up, it is barely tolerable. I can’t function. My migraines predated my RA, but when I hear of people having both, it doesn’t surprise me.”

Toya N., a Pennsylvania resident, has a similar story.

“I’ve had chronic migraines since I was a kid and then only recently was diagnosed with rheumatoid [arthritis],” she told Healthline. “My mother had both, too, so I’ve always been curious if there’s something genetic going on, and I believe there is.”

No medication is approved to treat the combination of RA and migraine, but the class of drugs known as biologics can be used to treat each individually.

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