Sex May Relieve Migraines But May Also Be a Migraine Trigger

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.

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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.

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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.

36 Million Migraineurs in the US alone may think they have a built in reason for avoiding sexual relations, but it’s not always a headache. A study from the University of Munster in Germany, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23430983 with a large sample (about 400 people ) uncovered some interesting results. They surveyed both migraineurs and those that suffered cluster headaches.

Our Teutonic Colleagues distributed a survey to one thousand patients diagnosed with either migraines or cluster headaches. The subjects were divided into 800 migraineurs and 200 cluster headache sufferers. The subjects confirmed the accepted thinking: most migraine patients are women, and most cluster headaches, are experienced by the male of the species.

40 percent of the test subjects responded to the survey, which is a superb response rate. Here are some of the conclusions the surveys yielded:

  • Around a third of migraineurs find sex as a reliable way to relieve headache pain.
  • About 60 percent of migraineurs reported total or at least considerable relief after sexual relations
  • Cluster headache sufferers described similar results.

So why does sex seem to play such a critical role? Nobody really knows for sure but there are several explanations worth considering.

A majority of the research community believes that migraines and cluster headaches are closely related to the neurochemistry of our bodies. Specifically, orgasms or the “climax”, stimulate the production of endorphins, a marvelous neurochemical compound of the brain that looks and acts like naturally occurring (endogenous) opioids, those sought after pain killers whose use pre-dates much historical record. Endorphins act like opioids in our brains, and they provide rapid pain relief that is even faster than IV morphine! You may have read about endorphins in the context of hard exercise (“runner’s high”) or in the central nervous system dopamine reward pathway. Or maybe not. To put it in a simple equation: sexual orgasm=endorphin production=pain relief or analgesia.

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter of SSRI/anti-depressant fame is also released during sexual relations. It is thought that the positive feelings accompanying sex may in part be attributed to serotonin release.

So that’s the good news regarding sex and migraines. Unfortunately for about 40 percent of the migraineurs who answered the survey, sex does not provide relief.  Even worse it may trigger a migraine/cluster event. There are two possible explanations for this: first is the physical activity that accompanies sexual activity especially involving muscle tissue in the back and the neck, and second is the relationship between stress, excitability and mood.

These last two areas are not well understood and require considerably more research. The same answer, in this case sex, will not work equally well for all people, if at all. However for the 40% for whom sex does not immediately appear to be the answer, perhaps a gentle exploration that moderates certain types of physical activity and emotional excitability may prove fruitful.

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