Causes Of A Chronic Migraine

'Rebounding' That Never Ends...

The Short Answer

In the context of migraines ‘chronic’ refers to the frequency of your migraine, rather than a specific type. It is however very important to understand the potential causes of a chronic migraine before you can decide how best to treat them.

Typical causes of a chronic migraine include neurological or brain damage, as well as a change in the pressure around your brain (effectively causing similar damage).

Our article looks specifically at the potential causes of your chronic migraine…

Understanding A Chronic Migraine

Most migraines are what is known as ‘episodic’ – meaning they come along, cause an immense level of pain for hours, maybe even a day or two and then subside. It could then be weeks or months, sometimes even years (with good management) before you suffer another one.

If you suffer with chronic migraines however, you are afforded no such recovery time.

Chronic migraine sufferers typically experience significantly longer migraines and always suffer more migraines.

Chronic migraines are actually defined as migraines that occur with much greater frequency. The International Headache Society defines chronic migraines as migraines for which the sufferer has experienced at least 15 ‘headaches day’ during each of the last 3 months.

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Symptoms Of A Chronic Migraine…

Chronic migraines can be all different types of migraine, but typically last much longer and occur much more frequently. We can categorise typical symptoms as being –

  • Severe (at best moderate) levels of pain
  • A pulsating sensation on one side of your head
  • Typically made worse by a whole range of physical activities

Causes Of A Chronic Migraine…

The causes of a chronic migraine are not well understood by doctors and scientists at all. Many theories have been built around why someone can go from suffering episodic (occasional) migraines to suffering chronic (continuous, regular) migraines.

Even trying to establish definite causes behind even the basic migraine is vastly complicated.

With a chronic migraines this is even more complicated, because the lack of recovery time becomes a major contributor to further ones.

Probably the best we can propose is that migraines are a highly personal event, but that certain issues are known to be the most likely causes –

  • Chemical Imbalances. These chemical imbalances can interrupt nerve pathways, ultimately causing frequent (chronic) migraines.
  • Vascular Irregularities. In other words, issues with the blood flow to your brain can cause a whole range of chronic migraines.
  • Your Genes. Sadly, a family history of chronic migraines gives you a much higher chance of developing them too, although it is by no means guaranteed.
  • CNS Disorder. Any neurological disorder (your nerves not working properly) could cause the onset of consistent migraines.
  • A History of Strokes Or Other Blood-Pressure Related Problems. Strokes or blood-pressure problems can permanently damage your brain, leading to debilitating migraines.
  • Brain Tumours. A brain tumour will cause pressure to build up inside you brain, with one potential side effect being persistent migraines.
  • Pressure In The Brain (Either Low or High). A variety of other reasons could cause an imbalance in brain pressure, similar to that of a tumour, with the same side effect of chronic migraines.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury. Again, any damage to the brain is likely to affect the delicate working balance and may result in chronic migraines developing.
  • Infections (Including Meningitis). These can, in some cases, cause mild damage to both your central nervous system and even the brain itself. Either damage could result in chronic migraines setting in.


It is important to remember that causes and triggers are two different things – causes are what effectively created the migraines in the 1st place, while triggers are events/ activities that can increase/ decrease the frequency of your migraines.

This can however become somewhat blurred with chronic migraines – because a trigger is technically also a cause, since chronic migraines are normal migraines occurring at greater frequency.

For more information, check out our article on ‘Chronic Migraine Triggers’

Prevalence Of Chronic Migraines…

Chronic migraines are not that prevalent. If we take the US as an example (with good data available) the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study put the figure at 1.3% for women and 0.5% for men.

Global estimates of the frequency of chronic migraine sufferers vary from 1.4% to 2.2%.

This compares to an average of 6-8% men/ 15-18% of women that suffer with ‘normal’ episodic migraines (Current Pain And Headache Reports)

It is thought that chronic migraines become more prevalent as you get older.

The Final Word –

There are a number of potential causes of a chronic migraine – most of these revolving around some form of neurological/ brain damage or the effects of increased pressure on the brain.

Causes of a chronic migraine differ from ‘triggers’, in that causes are about why you developed chronic migraines in the 1st place, whereas triggers concern how frequent your migraines come back.

For you to be suffering from chronic migraines, you must have suffered at least fifteen ‘headache days’ for each of the last 3 months.

If you suffer for less time, then it is considered that you suffer with ‘sporadic migraines’.

The main goal with treating chronic migraines is to use a variety of treatments including avoiding potential triggers, to bring the frequency down. See our Treatments page for more information.

It is possible to both move from sporadic migraines to chronic migraines and (hopefully) back down to sporadic migraines.

The better you manage your migraines, the better your chances of reducing their prevalence – although unfortunately good management still does not guarantee that you wont suffer with chronic migraines.

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References Used –

1. The International Headache Society.
2. Reed ML, Buse DC, Manack AN, Fanning KM, Serrano D, Turkel CC, Lipton RB. (2011). Prevalence of chronic migraine (CM), headache-related disability and sociodemographic factors in the US population: Results from the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention (AMPP) study. Headache.
3. Zaza Katsarava, Dawn C. Buse, Aubrey N. Manack, and Richard B. Lipton. (Nov 2011). Defining the Differences Between Episodic Migraine and Chronic Migraine. Current Pain And Headache Reports

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