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Physiology of the menstrual cycle


SD Silberstein, Department of Neurology, Jefferson Headache Centre, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 111 South 11th Street STE 8130, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107-5092, USA. Received 10 February 2000, accepted 25 May 2000


The normal female life cycle is associated with a number of hormonal milestones: menarche, pregnancy, contraceptive use, menopause, and the use of replacement sex hormones. All these events and interventions alter the levels and cycling of sex hormones and may cause a change in the prevalence or intensity of headache. The menstrual cycle is the result of a carefully orchestrated sequence of interactions among the hypothalamus, pituitary, ovary, and endometrium, with the sex hormones acting as modulators and effectors at each level. Oestrogen and progestins have potent effects on central serotonergic and opioid neurons, modulating both neuronal activity and receptor density. The primary trigger of menstrual migraine appears to be the withdrawal of oestrogen rather than the maintenance of sustained high or low oestrogen levels. However, changes in the sustained oestrogen levels with pregnancy (increased) and menopause (decreased) appear to affect headaches. Headaches that occur with premenstrual syndrome appear to be centrally generated, involving the inherent rhythm of CNS neurons, including perhaps the serotonergic pain-modulating systems.