After you mention your migraine to your aunt, they say your grandmother suffered from it too.
If you’ve gone to a doctor about migraines, they may also have asked if anyone in your family has also dealt with migraines.
Is it a coincidence? Or could there be a family link between migraines?
It turns out that our genes may have some input into whether or not we experience this condition.
Julia Bucklan, DO, explains how genetics play a role in migraine diagnosis and treatment.
Are migraines hereditary?
Migraines and their general cause are a tough nut to crack. This is because they are caused by a combination of environmental, medical and genetic factors. So, it can be difficult to tell when your migraines come from the stressors around you or if they’re something passed down to you through genetics.
Here’s what the numbers tell us: Migraines tend to be hereditary. So, if at least one of your biological parents suffered from migraines, there’s a 50% to 75% chance that you will too.
But migraines are the culmination of many factors, both genetic and environmental. So, there is no single gene that determines whether a person will develop migraines, says Dr. Bucklan.
However, there are known genes that promote migraine development, he continues. These identified genes raise the likelihood of something called cortical diffusion depression, which is a change in brain activity that manifests as different neurological disorders, such as migraines.
So in short, yes, migraines can be hereditary. And several genes have been identified that may be involved in the development of migraine (more on that in a bit).
But it’s important to know that it takes more than a mutated gene to be more susceptible to migraines. Rather, it’s a combination of several genes coming together. And having these certain genes doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get migraines either.
How inherited genes affect migraine
So how do your genes affect if you have migraines? A gene stores information from your DNA about how to make proteins in your body.
When a gene changes or becomes mutated, a miscommunication occurs and can cause someone to become predisposed to certain health problems that can manifest differently depending on the gene. Thus, it is possible for this gene to be passed on to that person’s children.
I always explain migraines as an electrical storm, with the activation of various receptors and the opening of certain ion channels that cause migraine symptoms, illustrates Dr. Bucklan. And so these genetic mutations may make you more susceptible to migraines, but they’re not something we can actually test clinically.
But it’s important to know that our genetics are only one factor in the development of migraines, and other factors such as environmental triggers and lifestyle factors also play a role.
Are all migraine types hereditary?
From chronic migraines to episodic migraines to migraines with aura, you may be wondering if some migraine types have more than one genetic link.
The genes being talked about the most are those associated with hemiplegic migraine, Dr. Bucklan notes.
THE ATP1A2, CACNA1A AND SCN1A genes are three of the common genes associated with this subtype of migraine, known as familial hemiplegic migraine (FHM). FHM is a rare form of migraine characterized by temporary paralysis or weakness on one side of the body (hemiplegia) during or before the headache phase.
Here’s what we know so far about these geniuses:
- CACNA1A: This gene opens the calcium channel and plays a crucial role in regulating the flow of calcium ions in neurons. Mutations on this gene can either increase the flux of calcium ions, making neurons more excited, or they can decrease neuron firing because the channel becomes too closed.
- ATP1A2: According to various studies, mutations on the ATP1A2 gene disrupt the normal activity of sodium-potassium enzymes, which help with cell membrane health. Mutations on this gene can lead to abnormal ion transport and nerve cell dysfunction.
- SCN1A: THE SCN1A gene is mainly associated with a neurological disorder called Dravet syndrome, which is characterized by seizures and developmental delays. While SCN1A mutations are not directly linked to migraine, there is some evidence to suggest a potential connection between SCN1A genetic variants and an increased risk of migraine or migraine-like symptoms in some people.
But that doesn’t mean that only familial hemiplegic migraines have a genetic association it just means this is the one that has been studied and understood the most.
It’s also worth noting again that even if you have migraines in your family, not all members of your family may be affected, and the severity and frequency of migraines can vary greatly from person to person.
How can understanding the genetics of migraines help treat them?
So why is it important to consider genetics when treating migraines?
According to Dr. Bucklan, this information is helpful when making a diagnosis. And as we continue to learn more, genetics may be invaluable as more treatment and management options for migraine are developed.
We haven’t really mapped out all the genes involved in migraine, and there’s still so much to learn, she explains. But the hope is that as we learn more, it can help guide our treatment strategies for migraine. Right now, we certainly use evidence-based medicine, but it’s broader and more generalized. Our hope is that one day he narrows it down and understands how each individual person responds to different treatments.
Knowing your genetics can potentially help you manage your migraines in several ways:
- Early diagnosis and intervention: According to Dr. Bucklan, one of the best things genetic knowledge can do in your migraine treatment journey is help with clarity in diagnosis. By identifying these factors early on, you and your doctor may be able to implement preventive measures to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and avoid their progression to chronic migraine.
- Identify triggers: By understanding the genetic factors that may contribute to your migraines, you may be able to identify specific triggers that are more likely to cause migraine attacks. If you have a genetic variant that makes you more sensitive to certain foods or environmental factors, you may be able to avoid or reduce your exposure to those triggers to help prevent migraines.
- Addressing the stigma: Living with migraines can be not only painful but also confusing. A genetic link could help you figure out where your migraine symptoms are coming from. As Dr. Bucklan points out, knowing you’re not alone in dealing with your migraine can, at the very least, start a productive conversation. It helps with stigma and I think it helps with personal acceptance.
As always, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional who is experienced in migraine treatment and can help interpret the results of any genetic tests and develop an individualized treatment plan.
How can you find out if your migraines are hereditary?
If you have a family history of migraines, you may be wondering if it’s in your genes that you get migraines too. But right now, there’s no specific medical test or diagnostic tool to actually determine if migraines are hereditary.
If you suffer from migraines and have a family history of migraines, it’s important to discuss them with a healthcare professional. They may ask you questions about your family history of migraines and other medical conditions, as well as perform a physical exam and possibly order diagnostic tests to rule out other underlying conditions that could be causing your headaches.
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