A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood of you developing a condition. It does not mean that you will get the condition. It is a statistical relationship between two items. The more risk factors you have for a condition the greater the chance of you having the condition. Yet at the same time you can get a disease without having any of the risk factors.
A cause on the other hand must be present for the condition to occur. In the migraine world these causes are often referred to as triggers. Big ones include: stress, lifestyle choices (smoking, drinking) and food preservatives.
Equally important to knowing your triggers you should also be aware of the risk factors you have that may predispose you to getting migraines.
Having predetermined risk factors for migraine headaches does not mean you will inevitably develop migraines, but it does mean that if enough of the factors line up that you will get them. Being aware of the risks will help you arm yourself with the knowledge that you need to determine if you are experiencing migraines or if there is a different problem going on.
Here are several migraine risk factors that you need to know:
Family history – Does someone in your family suffer from migraines? Seventy to eighty percent of migraine sufferers also have a family member who is suffering or has suffered from migraines, too. If you are the child of parents who have had migraines, your risk is increased and you should talk to your parents about their experience. That way, you can set into place a plan for prevention. Your family history of migraines will also make the diagnostic process simpler. (Side note to parents, migraines don’t always manifest in kids they way they do in adults. It can show up as a stomach pain, so see a doctor if you think your kids might be impacted by this).
Gender - If you are female, you are at greater risk to develop migraines. During childhood, boys and girls have the same chance of developing migraine headaches. However, once hormones take center stage, the risks to a female jump significantly. The culprit is estrogen spikes during a girl’s puberty years. From then on, migraines will be more common in women than in men. The fluctuation of estrogen happens for many reasons right through a woman’s life until the onset of menopause. There is no question about it that female hormones and migraines are linked. My own grandmother suffered migraines until menopause, then had no more problems due to not enough triggers.
Age – Migraines occur most often between the ages of 15 and 55. For whatever reason; stress, hormones, diet; those are the ‘hot’ years for migraines to appear and increase in severity. However, before age 15, children are often misdiagnosed when they are actually experiencing migraines. There is no definite answer to the age risk, only a generalization. Overall, the statistics show that migraine occurrences drop for both men and women after the age of 40. However, women during the perimenopause years (about 45 to 55 years old) have reported an increase in migraine episodes. This is a very subjective risk factor but one that can be used as a diagnostic tool with care.
Hormonal changes – Hormones are on a rampage during puberty, pregnancy, and perimenopause. Migraines are often reported in the first trimester of pregnancy when hormones are at the most volatile, and taper off as the pregnancy progresses. During the menstrual cycle each month, hormone fluctuations can cause migraines. Any stress that causes hormones to spike can cause a migraine to occur if a person is susceptible. But remember that this too can vary, I actually experienced zero migraines during my pregnancy, but they came flooding back after delivery.
Ethnicity – North American Caucasians appear to have a higher risk of developing migraines than either African Americans or Asian Americans. Migraines are less often seen in Europe or South America and much less likely to be seen in Africa or Asia. Studies haven’t connected this with any conditions in the environment, food supply, or medical knowledge, only genetics. These differences can help your doctor with a diagnosis.
If you have a family history of migraines, or have one or more of these risk factors, talk to your doctor about the possibility of your headache pain being a migraine. Discuss all your options to keep migraines from becoming a part of your life and if need be begin to understand your triggers better.