Sex may relieve migraine pain for some people who suffer from the intense headaches, new research suggests.
The finding, published in the March issue of the journal Cephalalgia, found that sexual activity relieved the pain of migraines or cluster headaches, severe, one-sided recurring head pains, for up to a third of patients. Some of the patients even reported using sex as a kind of headache therapy.
"There's a [portion] of patients with migraines, about one-third, who experience relief from a migraine attack by sexual activity," said study researcher Stefan Evers, a neurologist and headache specialist at the University of Münster in Germany.
The researchers aren't sure why this happens, but hypothesize that the rush of endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers, during sex may numb the pain of migraines.
Many stimuli, from sunlight to lightning, can trigger migraines. Meanwhile, about 1 percent of the population suffers from headaches caused by sex, Evers told LiveScience. [Ouch! 10 Surprising Causes of Headaches]
Doctors had previously reported that sex relieves migraines, but those results were based on small studies.
To see whether this phenomenon was borne out on a larger scale, Evers and his colleagues sent 800 patients who had migraines and 200 patients with cluster headaches a questionnaire about their experiences with sexual activity during headache attacks, and how sex affected the pain intensity.
About four in 10 of the surveyed patients responded.
Results showed that about a third of patients engaged in sexual activity during a migraine or cluster headache. Of migraine sufferers, 60 percent experienced relief, with the majority of those patients reporting a moderate or complete amount of pain relief. For a third of the responding patients, sex worsened the migraines.
Among patients with cluster headaches, about a third reported total or partial relief, while about 50 percent said their headaches worsened.
Evers suspects the bodies of those who experienced complete pain relief from migraines may be more likely to release endorphins during sex.
"The same people who release endorphins from extreme sports activity, so a triathlon or marathon, it might be that these are the patients who release endorphins during sexual activity," Evers told LiveScience.
While doctors have suspected that sex could relieve migraines for years, this is the first time that such a large cohort of patients has been studied, said Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist and director of the New York Headache Center, who was not involved in the study.
Also, while canoodling may be a good way to feel close to a partner, it probably won't relieve migraine pain, Mauskop said. In fact, many migraine sufferers don't like to be touched when they have the headaches, because the episodes make them sensitive to light, noises and other sensations, he said.
The orgasm, and the resulting rush of endorphins, probably turns off the migraine pain, so even masturbation may be helpful, Mauskop said. For those who experience relief from migraines during sex, "having an orgasm in any way shape or form will help," he told LiveScience.
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Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.