Migraine as a Stroke Mimic and as a Stroke Chameleon

Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2019 Jul 29;23(9):63. doi: 10.1007/s11916-019-0801-1.


Purpose of review: This review details the frequency of and ways in which migraine can be both an ischemic stroke/transient ischemic attack mimic (false positive) and chameleon (false negative). We additionally seek to clarify the complex relationships between migraine and cerebrovascular diseases with regard to diagnostic error.

Recent findings: Nearly 2% of all patients evaluated emergently for possible stroke have an ultimate diagnosis of migraine; approximately 18% of all stroke mimic patients treated with intravenous thrombolysis have a final diagnosis of migraine. Though the treatment of a patient with migraine with thrombolytics confers a low risk of complication, symptomatic intracerebral hemorrhage may occur. Three clinical prediction scores with high sensitivity and specificity exist that can aid in the diagnosis of acute cerebral ischemia. Differentiating between migraine aura and transient ischemic attacks remains challenging. On the other hand, migraine is a common incorrect diagnosis initially given to patients with stroke. Among patients discharged from an emergency visit to home with a diagnosis of a non-specific headache disorder, 0.5% were misdiagnosed. Further development of tools to quantify and understand sources of stroke misdiagnosis among patients who present with headache is warranted. Both failure to identify cerebral ischemia among patients with headache and overdiagnosis of ischemia can lead to patient harms. While some tools exist to help with acute diagnostic decision-making, additional strategies to improve diagnostic safety among patients with migraine and/or cerebral ischemia are needed.

Keywords: Acute ischemic stroke; Diagnostic error; Migraine; Migraine with aura; Stroke mimic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Ischemia / complications
  • Brain Ischemia / diagnosis*
  • Brain Ischemia / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Migraine Disorders / etiology
  • Migraine Disorders / physiopathology
  • Stroke / complications
  • Stroke / diagnosis*
  • Stroke / physiopathology