If you live with migraine, you’ll be all too familiar with the constant pounding pain of a typical migraine episode and its accompanying symptoms. However, one of those migraine effects can also bring some relief to the agony of a migraine attack: vomiting.
While unfortunate and super gross, vomiting is often the migraine equivalent of sinking the 8-ball. But why? Does vomiting trigger some activity in the body that eases migraine symptoms? Or does vomiting bring an end to the bodily functions involved in migraine episodes?
To answer these questions, let’s explore the theories spewing forth about the way vomiting seems to signal the end of a migraine attack.
Theories as to why vomiting stops migraine
The link between vomiting and migraine has been the topic of many studies. Several theories attempt to explain the science behind the apparent vomiting/ migraine connection. Most of them involve the brain communicating and interacting with other parts of the body in ways that trigger the vom response.
If the vomiting is an involuntary, natural response to nausea, it could resolve some symptoms of your ‘graine.
End of migraine
One of the theories for why vomiting relieves some migraine symptoms involves gastroparesis, a situation of slowed intestinal and stomach motions, with a slowed release of digestive enzymes.
According to a 2013 paper, gastroparesis commonly accompanies or links to migraine attacks. As a migraine attack occurs, your stomach muscles may experience a delay or sometimes even a pause in function. After the migraine, the gastroparesis also subsides. Once the gut is back in motion, you may vomit food that has been sitting in your stomach for too long.
The vomiting associated with the end of gastroparesis may also signal the end of the migraine.
Your body is incredibly complicated. Biological processes involve different genes, cells, hormones, and chemical messengers playing nicely together. The complex interaction theory looks at the body’s nervous systems and how it interacts with other body bits.
Your body has different nervous systems, including the autonomic nervous system that regulates body processes and the enteric nervous system that controls gastrointestinal (GI) functions. The researchers found that the central nervous system interacts with these other nervous systems during migraine episodes.
Because of the way the three components of the nervous system interact, a migraine can trigger vomiting. You have a vomiting center (which does not sound like a fun place to host a party). And this vomiting center gathers information from various bodily systems. Your vomiting center then decides to stimulate or stop the act of throwing up as it pleases.
(For example, when it sees Justin Bieber dressed as a f*cking potato in “The Friends Reunion,” it goes completely haywire.)
The chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ) in your brain communicates with the vomiting center to initiate vomiting. The CTZ also releases chemicals, including the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Another 2013 review found that these vomiting-induced endorphins may help you feel better during a migraine episode.
In short, in some situations of severe nausea, vomiting releases neurotransmitters that could send some of the symptoms of a migraine attack packing.
Another theory is that the resolution of a migraine stimulates the vagus nerve. Sometimes vomiting occurs because of this vagus nerve activation.
As with complex interaction, the vagus nerve connects to a complicated network of nerves, in this case, the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve begins in the brain, running through your face and down into your abdomen.
In 2018 research, scientists found that the vagus nerve delivers information from the digestive system and organs to the brain. Vomiting is a byproduct of the communication between these systems. It seems that vomiting may stimulate the vagus nerve and relieve pain.
Furthermore, since this vagal stimulation is associated with migraine relief, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now approved Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) as a form of migraine treatment. (FDYay, right?)
The FDA cleared VNS in 2018. Evidence shows that when people use a VNS device, it decreases their migraine pain level at 30 and 60 minutes after application. Although migraine has other approved treatments, using a VNS device can cut down how many other medications you use, which means you can avoid side effects.
While the previous theories hedge their bets on a migraine episode finishing with vomiting, other ideas involve the idea that the mechanisms of vomiting trigger migraine attacks.
During a migraine episode, your brain sends chemicals like serotonin and noradrenaline throughout your brain. These chemicals cause inflammation and swelling in the blood vessels, allowing for an increased blood flow around the brain.
Some doctors think that this increased blood flow causes the throbbing, pulsing pain you may experience during a migraine episode.
According to a 2018 review, vasoconstriction, meaning that blood vessels in the brain narrow, relieves pain because there’s less blood flowing to the vessels that the migraine affects. And guess what? Vomiting sometimes causes vasoconstriction, therefore relieving pain or some other symptoms.
Vomiting also causes an increase in the hormone arginine-vasopressin (AVP) or just plain old vasopressin. AVP constricts blood vessels which in turn can relieve migraine pain.
How are migraines and vomiting related?
Several of these theories can apply to peeps with migraine at one time, as everyone experiences migraine differently.
For some people, nausea is a trigger for migraine — so they’ll smell something bad, get nausea, and then develop a migraine attack. For others, migraine triggers nausea, even if the nauseous feelings develop among migraine’s early symptoms.
Severe nausea and repeated vomiting are symptoms of stomach flu. People who have recurrent migraine attacks will often experience symptoms when they’re sick due to another cause. That’s another link between vomiting and migraine — they’d probably be in each other’s Myspace top 8s.
The nervous systems involving the brain and the gut interact and communicate with each other. This bidirectional communication, known as the gut-brain axis, is one of the reasons for GI migraine symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
This correlation, explained in a 2013 paper, could also explain why certain emotional states like anxiety and depression trigger GI symptoms.
Many people with migraine list vomiting and nausea as one of their symptoms. A 2013 analysis of 407 people living with migraine noted that more than 90 percent of them listed nausea as a symptom, and 70 percent experienced involuntary vomiting with their migraine episodes.
Lots of children experience what doctors label abdominal migraine. Someone with abdominal migraine will feel mild discomfort in the abdominal region, often accompanied by loss of appetite and… yep, vomiting and nausea. They may or may not also have headaches.
Children who experience abdominal migraines often grow to have typical migraine attacks as adults. Doctors don’t really know if vomiting relieves abdominal migraine in the same way as migraine episodes.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Doctors don’t really know if vomiting provokes bodily responses that provide migraine pain relief or if vomiting occurs as a natural progression of migraine symptoms in some people, signaling the end of the episode.
More research is necessary. Scientists find this a complex area to investigate as some laboratory animals, such as guinea pigs, don’t vomit. But they do look great dressed as Harry Potter, so we forgive them.
Migraine attacks present differently for everyone, and episodes may feature a plethora of unpleasant symptoms besides nausea and vomiting.
Among the most common are:
- head pain that pulses, throbs, or pounds, and may get worse during physical activity
- dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting
- sensitivity to light, sound, or smells
- blurred vision
- confusion or difficulty concentrating
- stomach pain
You may experience migraine with aura, meaning you see flashes of light, blind spots, bright spots, or shapes. Usually, aura happens before a migraine episode and lasts for an hour or less.
Migraine attacks can last anywhere from 4 hours to several days.
If you feel like you need to vomit and then do so, it’s a complete lottery as to which migraine symptoms it may bring to an end. You might find that the pain stops, but other symptoms continue. Or it might do nothing but make you feel less dizzy.
How to feel less nauseous during migraine
Feeling sick is the worst. Whether it’s due to migraine or too much fun the night before, nausea and vomiting is no joke. There are some ways you can manage your symptoms, including medication, but you may find pills difficult to swallow when you’re feeling hella sick. Great!
Here are some things you can try if you’re feeling like trash:
- Change into some comfy, loose-fitting clothes.
- Use an ice pack on your head or neck (failing that get the frozen veg out — give peas a chance).
- Open a window to let in the fresh air and cool the room.
- Eat a small amount of bland food with no strong taste or smell.
- Try some ice cream (although some people say this worsens the symptoms).
- Drink lots of water or unsweetened tea.
- Do some relaxation breathing exercises or try some gentle yoga.
- Lie down in a dark room.
- Avoid using computers and smartphones.
- Eat or drink some ginger and maybe some turmeric.
If you think you could keep medication down, then try some over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. Although recommended for motion sickness, or allergies, these options may offer some relief:
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
- meclizine (Bonine)
- diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
Alternative therapies may help with some migraine symptoms. If it’s legal in your state, you can try medical cannabis. While more research is needed, a 2020 study found that treatment with medical cannabis reduced the frequency and severity of symptoms.
Failing that, some people find that acupuncture or acupressure helps relieve their migraine episodes.
Migraine is a chronic condition that may cause severe head pain accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Some people find that vomiting relieves migraine symptoms. However, does vomiting actually relieve the migraine, or does vomiting signal the end of a migraine episode? Doctors don’t really know.
If vomiting relieves your migraine, and you feel nausea, then let it rip! But (and we cannot stress this enough) it isn’t safe to induce vomiting if you don’t already feel nauseous. Let your body do the talking.
If not, you may need to find a quiet place to lie low for a while, drink some ginger tea or water, and lay off social media.
If you haven’t had a migraine before, or your symptoms get worse, go chat with your doc for advice.
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