I recently wrote a post about recent research linking childhood trauma to later health problems. A reader asked about the link between childhood abuse and migraine headaches specifically, so I thought I’d take a look.
Recent studies by the American Headache Society’s Women’s Issues Section Research Consortium suggest that women who suffered childhood abuse and trauma, especially emotional abuse and neglect, were more likely to suffer from chronic migraines (as well as fibromyalgia, endomitriosis and arthritis).
1,348 migraine patients from 11 separate headache clinics were surveyed. More than 58% reported having experienced some form of childhood abuse. Emotional abuse was reported most commonly (38%) and in higher severity (12% with “severe to extreme” abuse) than other abuses, such as physical and sexual abuse.
Emotional abuse is “very, very common” in this headache population, said the lead study author, Gretchen E. Tietjen, MD, professor and chair, Department of Neurology, University of Toledo, Ohio. “The rate was higher than previously reported, and it was surprising.” In the general population, only about 10% of respondents report emotional abuse, according to Dr. Tietjen.
Physical abuse in childhood has also been found to be linked to later migraines. Canadian researchers found that migraines were twice as common among adults with a history of childhood physical abuse compared to those who reported no such abuse. In another study of nearly 4,000 Taiwanese teenagers, a higher prevalence of migraines was found among those who said they had ever been beaten by a family member. The frequent the abuse, the greater the chances of suffering migraines.
Jane Leserman, PhD reported in Psychosomatic Medicine that headaches in general (migraines were not specified) were reported more often by those with a sexual abuse history than those without.
More research is needed to understand exactly how childhood abuse can lead to migraines and other pain conditions. Childhood trauma may cause changes in areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, and alter stress responses. What might tie abuse and various pain syndromes together is something called “central sensitization,” where stress pushes the central nervous system into overdrive. This may be why those with migraines are also more likely to experience other pain-related syndromes.
Headache, March 2, 2010 online
Headache. 2010;50:20-31, 32-41, 42-51.