When discussing migraines, people often focus on the headache aspect of the attack. However, if you’re a migraine sufferer, you know that headaches and pain are just one small part of the experience. For many, the brain fog, confusion, and memory loss that come with a migraine are just as bothersome — if not more bothersome — than the headache.
Sometimes this memory loss is blamed on the pain. Patients assume, or are told, that they can’t think straight simply because they are in so much pain. However, memory and migraine researchers are finding that this is not an entirely accurate way to depict and understand the cognitive challenges caused by migraine. Yes, the pain may contribute to or worsen your confusion, but these cognitive symptoms, in and of themselves, are real and direct symptoms of migraine and not simply a consequence of the pain.
Sometimes migraine sufferers who deal with memory loss and confusion feel alone in their experience. However, studies have found these symptoms to be quite common. In a qualitative review published in the Journal of Headache and Pain in 2018, the authors noted that all objective studies found that patients showed varying degrees of cognitive impairment during a migraine.
While many migraine sufferers struggle with cognitive symptoms, symptoms can vary widely between patients. For some patients, the primary cognitive symptom is memory loss. The patient may suddenly find that they don’t remember how they got to work that morning. They may not remember family members’ names, passwords, or even their own birthday. This can be an incredibly scary experience.
For other patients, the cognitive symptoms of migraine are better described as “brain fog.” You may feel as though your brain is processing things more slowly than usual, or like you have to think really deeply about tasks that you know are actually simple. You may struggle to complete sentences or have difficulty solving simple math problems.
As with so many other aspects of migraine, the range of “what’s normal” is incredibly broad. The bottom line is this: If you experience memory loss or other cognitive challenges during a migraine attack, you’re not alone, and you’re not imagining it.
There is also a lot of variety as to when migraine patients experience their memory loss and bran fog. For some, the memory loss comes in in the prodrome stage. These patients feel their cognition declining and know they’re about to have a migraine attack. For others, the confusion and memory loss only occur during the height of the migraine attack.
It’s common for the cognitive symptoms of migraine to linger into the postdrome stage. Even after the headache itself has passed, people feel like they can’t think clearly, or like their brain is still in a fog. This postdrome stage usually dissipates in a day, but it can last several days.
This is one of the biggest fears my patients have — that the memory loss associated with their migraines will be permanent. Luckily, there’s some good news here. Research has shown that the cognitive dysfunction associated with migraine is reversible and does not last once the postdrome is over. Longitudinal studies, which are studies that follow the same participants over a period of time, have not found an increased risk of cognitive decline in migraine sufferers.
No discussion of memory loss and migraine is complete without a mention of confusional migraines. This is a rare type of migraine that mostly occurs in children and adolescents. They cause more dramatic cognitive symptoms than a common migraine: intense confusion and disorientation, memory loss, blurred vision, agitation, and dizziness. The episode typically lasts about five hours, and afterwards, the patient often forgets what happened during the attack.
The symptoms of confusional migraine are similar to those of stroke and epilepsy, so any patient who believes they’re suffering from a confusional migraine should see a neurologist promptly. Confusional migraines generally respond well to triptans, ergotamines, and other medications used for common migraines.
If you are experiencing brain fog or memory loss and migraines, you should certainly bring these symptoms to the attention of a neurologist. We can rule out other more worrisome conditions like stroke and seizure disorders, and we can also prescribe effective medications to help reduce the severity and frequency of your migraine attacks.
Are you looking for a neurologist to diagnose and treat your migraines? Contact us to schedule a virtual or in-person appointment. We’re able to schedule patients within 48 hours, and we take a customized approach, tailoring your individual treatment plan to meet your unique needs.