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Depression, Migraine’s Unpleasant Cousin

Having frequent migraine attacks is depleting in every way imaginable – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, even sexually – but when migraine’s unpleasant cousin, depression, comes to visit, migraine alone seems like an easy house guest. Hope, optimism, self-compassion, all necessary tools for coping with a constant migraine, are replaced with bleak despair, which never does anyone a favor.

I call depression migraine’s cousin because the two are comorbid disorders. While some people say that depression is to be expected in someone with frequent severe pain, the correlation is not as simple as being sad because you’re in pain. Although the exact pathophysiologies of migraine and depression are unknown, studies are investigating common genes between the disorders and it is hypothesized that migraine and depression have similar neurochemical abnormalities, share neuropathic mechanisms that cause limbic activation, and involve the same regions of the brain1.

Whatever the biological mechanisms are, the prevalence statistics are striking. Depression is three times more likely for people with migraine or severe headache disorders than in the general population1. People with migraine are 80% more likely to have a major depressive episode than those without migraine2. People who have had major depressive episodes are 40% more likely to develop migraine than those who haven’t experienced depression2.

Another migraine blogger once told me that she can handle chronic migraine just fine, it’s the depression that really weighs her down. At the time, when my migraine pain was hitting at least a level 7 every day, but I’d been depression-free for several years, I had trouble identifying with her. Not anymore.

Since depression has robbed me of the tools that help me through the daily slog of chronic migraine, eventually finding an effective migraine treatment seems as elusive as adopting a unicorn. The possibility of living a happy life despite migraine seems similarly unlikely. Rationally, I know this depression won’t last and that my positive outlook will return, but that day feels impossibly far away.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Pompili M, Serafini G, di Cosimo D, et al. “Psychiatric comorbidity and suicide risk in patients with chronic migraine.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 2010;6(1):81–91.
  2. Gibson, J. W. “Down but Not Out: Depression and Migraine.” 2012; 2(2).


  3. Dee
    5 years ago

    I can empathise with you on this one, Kerrie. You are bound to experience clinical or otherwise depression whether chronic or not. I know how you feel. The desperation and frustration. The waiting for attack after attack to pass. I find I feel better when I devise a plan of attack. It helps me to feel more in control.

  4. John Gould
    5 years ago

    My problem is that since I have clinical bipolar depression (with very, very little mania), I have no ability to devise any plans. I can take my meds, but that’s about it, and that doesn’t help all the time, since I get 5-6 moderate-severe migraines a week. I just don’t have the emotional energy to do much but feel bad in all ways. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between the two, but I do know for sure that they feed off each other.

  5. Meic
    5 years ago

    Regarding the correlation between migraine and depression, that depressions that the kind of depression that someone suffers from for months, years?
    When I get migraines I can experience feelings that would tick the box of depression, everything is dark, hard and just extremely unpleasant. I also get anxiety, BUT when the episode passes, I am back to being happy as a clam again.The longest period I think was 5 weeks of those feelings and daily headaches. Usually this can occur in one day, and the day after I am beat up, but happy and feeling joyful again.

  6. Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Yes, transient sadness (and anxiety) that happens only during a migraine attack and at no other time is a common migraine symptom, but is not considered clinical depression.

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