Headaches from the Heart

Migraine headaches linked to patent foramen ovale, a common heart defect

April 3, 2011 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Of the 15 percent of U.S. children who suffer from migraines, about one-third of all children, have migraines with aura - which involve a set of symptoms such as flashes of light, blind spots, and tingling.

New research shows these migraines in children may be related to a certain heart defect.

After studying a group of children diagnosed with migraines, researchers found that half of the children who had migraines with aura also had a patent foramen ovale - a hole in the wall in the heart's upper chambers.  

Sometimes an aura lets unfiltered blood skip past the lungs and continue running through the body.

"Children who suffer from migraines with aura may need a simple surgery."

Dr. Rachel McCandless and her colleagues - researchers from the Primary Children's Medical Center and the University of Utah - looked for patent foramen ovales in 109 children 6 to 18 years of age who had been diagnosed with migraines.

They found that 50 percent of children who suffered from migraines with aura also had a patent foramen ovale. Meanwhile, among children who had migraines without aura, only 25 percent had a patent foramen ovale.

Dr. McCandless hopes that these findings will help other researchers continue to explore and find solutions for debilitating migraines.

In Depth

  • According to the study's authors, if more research shows that a patent foramen oval directly causes certain migraines, then closing that hole may be a relatively simple treatment for the painful disorder.

Migraine headaches affect 6% of men (9 million) and 18% (27.5 million) of women in the United States. Migraines are typically on one side of the head, and produce a pulsing, debilitating pain, often along with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. They can last anywhere from a few hours to over a few days. Sometimes patients experience an aura, or a perception of strange light or smells that indicate the headache is coming. The exact cause of migraines is unknown, although it is generally considered that nerve pathways and neurotransmitters are involved. Many migraine sufferers have triggers that cause headaches, such as stress, hunger, or fatigue, among many others. Diagnosis is made by severity, headache characteristics, and how often they occur. Treatment is either acute (NSAIDs, ibuprofen, naproxen) or preventative (Imitrex, Maxalt, Zomig, Relpax). Anti-depressants (Effexor, Cymbalta, amitryptylene) and anti-convulsants (Depakote, Neurontin, Topamax) have also been shown to be preventative.

This study will appear in the Journal of Pediatrics

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 31, 2011
Last Updated:
April 15, 2011