Migraine Headaches and Childhood Abuse

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.

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

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7 Responses to Migraine Headaches and Childhood Abuse

  1. I was tested years ago for my migraines and nothing physical was found to be causing the migraines. At the time, for the first time in my life, I was having at least 3 migraines a week. Before that I had one every 3-6 months. Since the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong I asked myself what was going on in my life at the time.

    I was working outside my home for the first time in many years at a part-time job in a bookstore. I loved that.

    My dad was trying to force my mom to divorce him after they had been separated for a few years. He wanted her to be the one to have to pay for it. She didn’t have the money. There were several angry phone calls from him every week. My mom lived with me at the time. This was very stressful. I often stood between her and my dad’s rage.

    This was the first time in many years that I had to deal with my dad. That meant my incest issues were up and in my face. Enough said.

    I realized that the times in my life when I had to deal with my dad were the times that I got migraines. The more I had to deal with him, the more migraines I got.

  2. The post you have provided here is really great i like it very much……thanks and great job

  3. Pingback: How Trauma Impacts Mental Health « Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  4. cornnut32 says:

    thank you for doing more research into this and sharing. i really appreciate it! definitely makes more sense why i get them so regularly.

  5. Pingback: Migrañas y traumas

  6. Pingback: Trauma and World Mental Health Day | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma

  7. Colin says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thanks for your article highlighting the link between childhood sexual abuse and headaches (and other chronic pain) in adulthood. I would like to understand the mechanism underlying this link. Do you have any ideas about breaking the link? Because, the reason for understanding the mechanism is inevitably to understand how to find relief from this kind of chronic pain. I will look into ‘central sensitization’, but I would appreciate any help.


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