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How Sex May Relieve Migraine Pain

Theories Include a Beneficial Release of Chemicals 

By Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt

Updated January 27, 2009

(LifeWire) - The relationship between headaches and sex has long been fodder for sitcom jokes with myriad portrayals of (mostly) women begging off  intimacy because they do not feel well. But while comedians like to equate headaches with abstinence, there are some people for whom the opposite is true: these headache-prone individuals not only have stronger libidos, but orgasm is a very effective pain reliever.

A 2006 study published in the journal Headache found that individuals who suffer from migraine headaches scored higher on a test called the Sexual Desire Inventory (SDI) than those who suffer from tension headaches. The phenomenon was true for both men and women, indicating that individuals with recurrent migraine headaches may experience a stronger desire for sex than those with non-migraine headaches.

Possible Link to Serotonin 

The association between migraines and increased sexual drive is very complex, but seems to be related to the brain chemical called serotonin. Researchers have noted that individuals who have migraines also have chronically lower levels of serotonin in their brains when compared to individuals who do not suffer from migraines.

Similarly, individuals who use antidepressant medications that increase brain levels of serotonin often suffer medication side effects that can include lowered sex drive and difficulty achieving orgasm. Because of these facts, researchers believe that higher serotonin levels inhibit sexual desire and sexual response. Thus, individuals with migraines, who are perhaps prone to experience migraines due to low serotonin levels, may also have a higher sex drive for the very same reason.

The Climax Cure

Research focused on whether and how orgasm relieves headaches is still in its very early stages. One small 2001 survey study in Headache questioned only women about whether they had ever undertaken sex while suffering from a migraine. Of the 83 women questioned, 57 had done so. Of these, 30% noted some pain relief and 17.5% became completely pain free. Only 5.3% noticed worsening of their headache symptoms after sexual intercourse.

The reason for relief of headache pain with sexual intercourse is not clear. Theories include:

  • Stimulation of the vagina during sex might provide a pain-relieving effect, perhaps due to some nervous system pathways involved in childbirth. One theory suggests that there is a process whereby pain is relieved in response to stretching of the cervix and pelvic outlet during childbirth; perhaps similar stimulation of this pain-relief pathway occurs during intercourse

  • Something that happens during an orgasm might suppress pain or even interrupt the process by which a migraine causes pain. Some scientists have postulated that there is a central "migraine generator" responsible for these headache epidoses. Perhaps chemicals released during orgasm serve to calm or turn off that migraine generator.

Although more research is needed to understand how headaches and sex are related, it is clear that the connection is complicated enough to be undeserving of a stereotypical comic quip. And individuals who suffer from migraines may well want to consider using the most organic form of treatment uncovered thus far.

Sources: Evans R.W., Couch J.R. "Orgasm and Migraine." Headache. 41. 5. May 2001. 512-14.
<http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1526-4610.2001.01091.x> (subscription)

Houle T.T., L.K. Dhingra, T.A. Remble, L.A. Rokicki, D.B. Penzien. "Not Tonight, I Have a Headache?" Headache. 46. Jun. 2006. 983-990.
<http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2006.00470.x> (subscription)

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD, works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant in Durham, NC. She served as editor-in-chief for two multi-volume MacMillan encyclopedias:  The Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior and Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco: Learning About Addictive Behavior. She worked on the 18th edition of the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, and has written thousands of print and online articles for healthcare providers and consumers.
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