People who undergo weight loss surgery may experience a beneficial side effect. Besides helping reduce a person's weight, the procedure may also mitigate migraine pain, a new study suggests.
Among severely obese participants in the study, the surgery was able to decrease the severity and frequency of migraines. Close to half of the participants saw a 50 percent or greater reduction in the frequency of their headaches six months after the operation. And the more weight patients lost, the greater the improvement in their headache symptoms, researchers said.
While previous studies have suggested obesity may exacerbate migraine pain, the study is the first to examine whether weight loss can alleviate these severe and sometimes disabling headaches.
During the study period, patients on average lost about 66 pounds (30 kilograms). Further research is needed to determine whether less drastic weight loss may also improve migraines, the researchers say.
"I think it's very important to do future studies now that look at whether smaller weight losses achieved through behavioral interventions that focus on changing diet and increasing physical activity, can also produce similar improvements in migraine headaches," said study researcher Dale Bond, of The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, R.I.
"I don't think we'll ever see a day where this type of surgery is done principally for migraine," said Dr. Roger Cady, of the Headache Care Center in Springfield, Mo. But the findings point out the need to pay more attention to diet and weight as risk factors for migraine, Cady said. "There's reason, based on this study, to think that weigh loss could be an important part of improving people's migraine pattern," he said.
Obesity and migraines
Migraine headaches are usually moderate to severe in intensity.
They are often described as throbbing or pulsing headaches occurring on one side of the head, according to the National Institutes of Health. They usually last six to 48 hours, and can come with symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. An estimated 28 million Americans are estimated to suffer from migraines, the majority of which are women.
Before the study, patients had an average of about 11 headaches over 90 days that caused distressing pain and disability. Six months later, the frequency of these headaches dropped to 6.7 over 90 days.
In addition, about 50 percent of patients reported severe disability before the study, meaning migraines severely affected their ability to perform daily activities, such as their job, chores and social activities. Six months afterward, just 12.5 percent of patients had this level of disability.
The likelihood that patients experienced a 50 percent reduction in the number of their headache days was greater the more weight they lost, the researchers said.
Since the study was small, future research will be needed to confirm the results. It's possible that simply the expectation that weight loss would mitigate headaches influenced how patients perceived and reported their migraines, the researchers explained.
In addition, patients were asked to recall how many migraines they experienced over a three-month period. Future studies should have patients keep a diary to record when they experience migraines, Bond said.
Why does weight loss prevent migraine?
Obesity is tied to increased levels of inflammation in the body, which turn, may contribute to migraine pain. Thus, losing weight may alleviate migraine pain because it reduces inflammation. It's also possible changes in diet, physical activity or in mood may influence migraine headaches, Bond said.
"It may be in large part just because people are eating a more healthy diet, avoiding some of things that might trigger migraine," as well as eating more regular meals, Cady said.
The study is published in the March 29 issue of the journal Neurology.
Pass it on: Weight loss surgery may reduce the severity and frequency of migraine headaches.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.