The link between migraine headaches and the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis is one of many conflicting factors in the difficult diagnosis of MS. More people with MS also get migraines, chronically severe or cluster headaches as compared with the general population according to the National MS Society. Since it is only one factor in MS diagnosis and since MS comes about differently in different people, it is not the deciding factor in MS diagnosis.
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Although most people are familiar with having a headache of some kind, those with MS have lesions on the brain combined with low serotonin levels--factors shared with migraine sufferers. According to the National MS Society, migraine headaches are a common but little studied link to the diagnosis of MS. The Society is helping fund a study at New York University to find out why migraines are more common in MS patients than in the general population.
The Society also states that while headaches are a symptom of MS, more common symptoms include depression, numbness, vision problems, fatigue, lack of coordination, dizziness, pain and muscle spasticity. Writer Kathryn Spira, who has secondary progressive MS, states that diagnosing MS, like Alzheimer’s, is more a matter of crossing off what diseases aren’t causing symptoms rather than what are. Therefore it is more important to find a mix of the more common symptoms that correlate to MS as well as headaches and then get an in-depth diagnosis from a neurologist who specializes in MS before jumping to the conclusion you have MS.
According to Ann Pietrangelo, a writer and MS sufferer, “Migraines and MS share common ground. They are both widely misunderstood and often dismissed as psychological in nature. They are both more common to women than men. They both will change the way you live your life.” However, to decide the two are linked as part of the diagnostic work-up has yet to be determined. It may just be that some sufferers of the MS also suffer from migraines and the one isn't a predictor of the other.
Other factors linked to MS and migraines may be more of an after effect than a symptom in diagnosis. Medications, fatigue, depression, stress and anxiety are all effects of MS that may help bring on a migraine or severe chronic headache. Visual problems, tension and the side effects from the main drugs used to combat MS, often called the ABC drugs (Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone) also have severe headaches as one common side effect.
There are several types of headaches that may be thought to be migraines and are commonly suffered by MS patients, but each type has a different description. Optic neuritis headaches tend to be on one side of the head and seem to be exacerbated by eye movement. Depression headaches, tension headaches (which tend to be milder than migraines) and cluster headaches (with quick onset and repeated shocking pain on one side of the head) have each been mistaken as migraine by the sufferer. One distinct difference is that migraines usually have an identifiable precursor that warns the patient of an oncoming attack of migraine. Some precursors include blurry vision, auras (visual distortions), one sided throbbing, light sensitivity or nausea.