An update on contraceptives in migraine with aura

Estrogen-based oral contraceptives are usually contraindicated for women who have migraines with aura. In the latest issue of the journal Headache, Dr. Anne Calhoun of the Carolina Headache Institute argues that this contraindication is no longer valid.

She analyzes research studies that consistently show that stroke risk is not increased with today’s very low dose combined hormonal contraceptives containing 20-25 µg ethinyl estradiol and that continuous ultra low-dose formulations (10-15 µg) may even reduce the frequency of migraine auras. The past prohibitions were mostly based on the risk associated with contraceptives containing over 30 µg and often 50 µg of estradiol.

We often use continuous contraception (not having a period for 3 to 12 months) in women with menstrually-related migraines, which usually are not accompanied by aura.

There is no doubt that the risk of strokes in women with migraines with aura who take oral contraceptives is significantly increased by smoking and other stroke risk factors, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other. So, women who have migraine with aura and take estrogen-based contraceptives should not smoke, should exercise regularly, have a healthy diet and have regular check-ups to detect conditions that may augment the risk of strokes. If such risk factors are present, progesterone-only or non-hormonal contraceptives should be used.

Dr. Calhoun also points out other benefits of oral contraceptives, besides the reduction of the chance of undesired pregnancy, relief of painful periods, excessive bleeding, acne, and PMS. These include reduction in death rate from any cause, 80% reduction in the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers and reduced risk of colorectal cancer. On the other hand, oral contraceptives do increase the risk of breast cancer.

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