Yes, your genetics can contribute to migraine. While scientists have found it pretty tricky to understand how it all works, they know that your genes play a big ol’ role in whether you have migraine.
Is migraine hereditary?
Yes, it can be.
Experts don’t fully understand why some people inherit migraine and others don’t. Scientists don’t agree on how much genetics contributes to migraine, but Genetics Home Reference estimates that more than half of those living with migraine have someone else in their family with the condition.
The causes of migraine are complex, involving a combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle factors.
If you’ve inherited migraine, it means your genes make you more sensitive to triggers. These triggers then summon the horrible, headache-y effects of migraine into your world. Thanks, genes.
Although hereditary migraine might not seem like a good thing, there are some benefits to having the condition run in your family.
You may find out more about the condition earlier on, understand more clearly how it might play out for you, and potentially find clues as to the best treatment (plus, you may get emotional support from peeps who understand both you and the condition).
Let’s unpack the science.
Considering that migraine is the third most widespread illness worldwide, occurring in 12 percent of the population, there’s still a lot that modern medicine doesn’t understand about this potentially debilitating condition.
Scientists understand that there’s a strong genetic link involved in migraine. Still, for most people, the culprit isn’t a single gene but a combination of factors, including:
Can migraine be genetic?
Yes, it can.
Up to 90 percent of people living with migraine may have a family history of it. Changes in your genes can make you much more sensitive to triggers or may mean that you feel pain more easily.
Migraine isn’t a single illness. Nope. It’s a group of neurological disorders that cause symptoms ranging from nausea, dizziness, and weakness to incapacitating headaches and visual disturbances.
Depending on the type of migraine you have, it can be more or less likely to have a genetic link.
Research: Which genes have links to migraine?
Scientists haven’t found an association with specific genes for some types of migraine, but they have identified mutations in particular genes that cause other types.
Here are a couple of examples of gene mutations involved with migraine:
- KCNK18. In 2010, researchers identified a link between migraine and this gene that encodes the TRESK protein. High levels of TRESK occur in an area of the brain called the trigeminal ganglion, which is involved in pain messaging in migraine-related areas. The researchers found an anomaly in this gene in people who experienced migraine with aura.
- CKIdelta. In 2013, scientists researched two families with a history of migraine. They found that a significant number of people with migraine also had a mutation in this gene. CKIdelta has various functions, including pain perception and the sleep-wake cycle.
Do gene variations link to migraine?
Yep. It seems that aside from direct genetic links, migraine could also run in families through polygenic inheritance.
If a characteristic or health problem is polygenic, it means that various genes collectively impact the likelihood of someone having that characteristic. These genes have tiny genetic variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms.
Each genetic variant may have just a teeny effect on an individual, but all together these variations can build up to influence the trait or condition someone inherits.
Are migraines hereditary from grandparents?
You inherit many things from your grandparents, and there’s some pretty heavyweight evidence that migraine runs in families. Scientists estimate that if one or both of your parents have migraine, you’ll have a 50 to 75 percent chance of having the condition.
It seems logical, then, that your parents had an equal chance of inheriting it from your grandparents. But that might not apply.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand the genetic components of migraine, but it’s possible that the condition could skip a generation. This means that even if one of your grandparents had migraine, your parent might not.
There are still lots of unknowns surrounding migraine and how inheritance works.
Because one form of agonizing, head-splitting pain isn’t enough, migraine comes in various flavors, each with potentially different causes and genetic links.
Is chronic migraine genetic?
Possibly. The genetic link with chronic migraine is complex, and researchers haven’t yet found a single causal gene.
In 2018, researchers documented that more than 40 locations on genes are linked with some common types of migraine. They examined the genetics of 1,589 families with migraine and found a significantly higher presence of these genetic variations than in the general population.
It seems that a single genetic variation doesn’t have much of an effect, but if a whole bunch of these genetic variations show up, it could result in someone developing migraine.
Is ocular migraine genetic?
Again, possibly. But more research is needed.
If you have ocular migraine, it means you experience vision changes. You may have visual and sensory changes, or aura, along with migraine symptoms, or they may appear on their own. For most people, the changes involve sensations like numbness or tingling, speech issues, and seeing bright zigzag lines or patterns.
Migraine with aura affects 25 to 30 percent of people with migraine, but fewer than 20 percent of those people experience aura with every migraine.
In a 2020 study, researchers looked at the genetics of migraine aura but couldn’t pin down specific genes that were involved.
As of now, it seems that migraine with aura is polygenic and involves multiple genes.
Familial hemiplegic migraine
Researchers seem to know more about familial hemiplegic migraine (FHM), and studies have confirmed that it has a known genetic association.
The three currently known causal genes found in people with FHM are called CACNA1A, ATP1A2, and SCN1A. These genes are involved in moving salts in and out of your cells, meaning that they influence how easily your nerves are activated and how they may react.
People who have a mutation in one of these three ion channel genes are likely to have FHM.
FHM has autosomal dominant inheritance, meaning that if either of your biological parents has the gene, they can pass FHM to you.
FHM tends to start at an earlier age than other forms of migraine. If you have FHM, you’ll experience aura along with a migraine attack and numbness or weakness, usually on one side of your body.
- a shift in humidity or temperature
- a change in altitude or barometric pressure
- extremely dry or very humid environments
- high winds and storms
- stuffy rooms, airplanes, or other transportation
- changes in routine
- bright, glaring, or flickering lights
- extreme heat or cold
- loud noises
- intense smells (really)
Because the weather causes your body’s chemical balance to shift, it can trigger migraine attacks or increase the severity of an attack triggered by something else. Doctors might mistake a weather-induced migraine episode for a sinus headache.
All sorts of changes in the environment can trigger migraine attacks — even things like changing jobs or schools, changing your diet, or anything else that requires an adjustment and adaptation.
Migraine triggers are complicated. What kicks off a migraine episode for one person may do nothing for another. So learning and understanding what can spark an episode for you can help you better manage migraine and reduce your exposure to triggers.
Having migraine run in your family might not sound helpful, but the opposite might be closer to the truth. Why? Because it means less guesswork. Doctors can gather valuable information from your family member’s medical history, such as:
- the age when their migraine began
- whether they outgrew migraine or its severity changed over time
- their migraine patterns, symptoms, and triggers
- the treatments and medications that helped them manage their symptoms
Plus, you’re more likely to have support and understanding from people who have lived the same experience as you.
When to see your doc
If you’ve begun to experience migraine symptoms, you should see a healthcare pro. They can rule out any other health issues and help you with meds to manage your symptoms, which may include:
- throbbing pain in your head
- nausea and vomiting
- sensitivity to light and sound
You may have aura symptoms before a migraine attack, meaning you see flashes of light, have trouble speaking, or have weakness or numbness in a limb or on one side of your face.
You should also see your doc if your regular medication isn’t helping and you’re having trouble going about your daily life due to migraine symptoms.
Although migraine is a pain in the ass (or head!), it usually isn’t a sign of a more severe health condition. But sometimes a headache can signal something more worrying.
Seek urgent medical attention if your headache:
- is especially severe and comes on within a couple of minutes
- happens after a head injury
- is different from your usual migraine pattern
- never goes away
- occurs with symptoms like fever, chills, or weight loss
- starts after a cough, sneeze, or other exertion
Migraine is still a bit of a mystery. Researchers understand that a combo of your genes and your environment contributes to migraine, but the exact cause is pretty much unknown.
When it comes to familial hemiplegic migraine, the experts know that mutations in specific genes influence the condition. On the other hand, migraine seems to involve variations in several genes.
Although having migraine in your family might seem like a nightmare, it can be helpful. How? It can take some guesswork out of establishing your triggers, and you may respond to the same or similar medication as your family member.
If you suspect you’re experiencing your first migraine episode, contact a healthcare pro to rule out other health conditions and discuss treatment options for migraine. If you have severe migraine symptoms or you’ve had a head injury, seek urgent medical care.