Emotional Abuse in Childhood Linked to Migraine in Adulthood?

Enduring emotional abuse as a child could increase a young adult’s risk of migraine, according to a preliminary study that was presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in April. Researchers also looked at the influence of physical or sexual abuse on migraine, but the strongest link was seen with emotional abuse.

Of the 14,484 participants aged 24 to 32 in the study, about 14% reported they had been diagnosed with migraine. All participants, whether they had migraine or not, were asked if they had experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse as children. About 47% said they had been abused emotionally, 18% were abused physically, and 5% were abused sexually. 61% of participants with migraine said they had been abused as a child, while 49% without migraine reported abuse.

Participants who had been abused in any way were 55% more likely to have migraine than those who were never abused. Those who had be abused emotionally were 52% more likely to have migraine than those who did not experience abuse. In stark contrast, those who had been abused physically or sexually were not significantly more likely to have been migraine than those who were not abused.

Because depression and anxiety could influence these findings, researchers adjusted for these factors and reanalyzed the data. In that analysis, people who had been emotionally abused were 32% more likely to have migraine than those who were not abused.

This study only shows an association between childhood emotional abuse and migraine. It does not show cause and effect. However, the finding that the likelihood of migraine increases with the number of types of abuse a person experiences suggests a potential causal link. This is not the first study linking migraine and emotional abuse, but more research is required to understand the connection.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if your headache specialist asks if you were abused as a child. It’s yet another piece of the puzzle that can help better understand migraine and find the most effective treatment for each patient.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
American Academy of Neurology. (2106, Apr 12). Children Who Are Emotionally Abused May Be More Likely to Experience Migraine as Adults [Press release]. Retrieved 4/26/16 from https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/Home/PressRelease/1442.

Comments

View Comments (8)
  • taralane
    3 years ago

    Hi all – I am curious how “emotional abuse” is defined. I have had migraines since I was 19 and am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I would argue that both sexual and physical abuse are also highly emotional – how can they not be? Dividing these into separate categories is misleading. That physical and sexual abuse show no statistical variation for migraine makes no sense. I was a very sensitive child, and my mother was very hard on me because she said I “needed to toughen up” – something that was just not in my nature, and still is not.

    I feel that physical and sexual abuse are categories within emotional abuse, and although very specific, and devastating, should be examined with that in mind if one is to draw any conclusions about childhood abuse and migraine.

  • SDziezyk
    3 years ago

    This information is so exciting that I finally registered to this site so that I could express my thoughts! Hello, everyone!

    First off, I am extremely pleased with the size of the study. It isn’t often that we get to see such a tenuous subject attended to with more than 100 individuals. The more subjects, the greater the veracity of the results, and the more credence the study will get. I am so happy for this!!

    Why am I happy, you may ask? Well, I can most rightly say that, while it is all first-hand anecdotal evidence that I am telling you this by, that I and my three other sisters certainly were subjected to about two decades of chronic emotional abuse (physical abuse was minimal, though marginally hard labor was rote) under our father, with a mother who cared deeply for us, but who was in not much of a position herself to help. The implications in the link between emotional abuse and a higher chance for developing migraine in life has grand life-sized revolutions for me. I deeply enjoy understanding more and more about the reality of things, and this just begs for more study. May be confirmation bias, but I hope that time and further well balanced research may filter that out.

    There have been documented physiological changes in the brain that occur due to emotional abuse, and it is not a huge leap to surmise that it would affect the propensity for migraine. Such large doses of chronic stress for years, decades on a developing 3-12 year old brain and older; the chronic hyperarousal and need to be unnaturally attuned to the environment for safety purposes, may cause the brain to become resultingly hypersensitive to stimuli of all sorts. These could be factors that help calculate a predisposition toward migraine. People of certain temperaments can also be more susceptible to stress. Such chronic stress may potentially cause somatic illness if not treated in a healthy manner. (More info: http://www.blueknot.org.au/WHAT-WE-DO/Resources/General-Information/Impact-on-the-physiology-of-the-brain )

    Back to my anecdote. In our dad’s case he did the best he could do for us, given his own childhood of extremely severe emotional and severe physical abuse. We had a picnic compared to him. Needless to say, his tactics did us no favors; his efforts were well meaning, Eastern European child rearing techniques.

    His spates of rage at life’s iniquities (and his own shortcomings) would often be turned on to us. I personally had a chronic fear of not doing something right, even when he didn’t tell us how to complete the task he ordered us to do to his standards. Damned if we did, double damned if we didn’t, triple damned if we did it wrong. This often would be in terms of complex tasks, such as helping fix machinery, to even tasks that would seem simple, such as holding a measuring tape, which we would get screamed at if we wavered in fear, leading to the tape moving a hair off of center, just making things worse.

    Tirades would often last for two hours, often bringing our mother and her well being into it, how we were making her life harder because we weren’t picking up our own slack, when we were trying as hard as we could. Resentment, fear, hatred, confusion, and not wanting to do the task in the end because we were afraid of not getting it right in the first place boiled in our heads, but I never spoke them out of fear of an even worse reprisal. I often did my best to hide, to avoid everyone else, and did my tasks when no one was around, so that I couldn’t be criticized and maybe even have a little fun.

    I once, when I was around 12 or so, couldn’t handle being asked why I hadn’t done something when I had procrastinated on it and answered him. I was horrified and traumatized even further as he berated me even more fiercely, when I thought I had given my father the answer he had wanted; that I was lazy, and stupid. That was the reason he had always given me – why was that answer not acceptable to him when I gave it to him now?? It still kind of shakes me even today, though I understand the circumstance on a logical level.

    I have 3 older sisters – including myself, there are 4 of us. 3 out of 4 sisters have migraine, one with chronic migraine. The one sister who does not have migraine does exhibit some behavioral tendencies that could be linked to a past of emotional abuse, including difficulties with emotional boundaries, a fear of her own anger and its capabilities on others (especially with her children, which have grown unruly and undisciplined), and a potential seeking of her childhood scenario by going into the National Guard. I myself am avoidant of new social situations, have immense problems with anxiety with typical jobs where people are judging my work or expect things from me, and can become greatly distressed with confrontation if I am unprepared, especially when the emotions run high. I simply cannot handle it.

    Our father has migraines as well, and surgery of the sinuses and nose has not fixed the issue. Nerve and eye damage from a long history of hard labor is a compounding problem.

    A countering argument may be that our migraines have been inherited, and it is a highly likely factor. It may be an exacerbating factor along with the emotional abuse.

    We need more studies like this!! Where can I sign up?!? This is so exciting!

    Best regards,
    ~Stephanie D.

  • sarah
    3 years ago

    This is very interesting research. I’ve often wondered if those who suffer from chronic migraine could be sensitive to all “inputs”. This may mean that a chronic migraineur might be sensitive physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Also, it seems all 5 of the senses are hyper-sensitive…..vision (glare sensitivity, aura); smell (hyper sensitive to fragrances, etc.); hearing (loud noises trigger migraine); taste (nausea); and touch (Allodynia). A women’s monthly cycle (sensitive endocrine system?) triggers migraines. Barometric pressure change affects one physically and triggers migraines, etc. There is no doubt there is a connection between chronic migraineurs and an abusive childhood. Is it possible that what might be verbally abusive to one (like someone who is wired with a hyperactive sensory system) wouldn’t be considered verbal abuse to another who has less overall sensitivity. Sort of “which came first, the chicken or the egg”. Did abuse cause the sensitivity or did the sensitivity amplify a situation to becoming abusive for the migraineur?

  • Kaynaydian
    3 years ago

    Sarah, you make some very interesting points. I’m also one of those chronic migraineurs who seems hypersensitive to EVERYTHING and with all of my senses. I didn’t feel this way before chronic migraine, I don’t think, but maybe the migraines have increased in frequency and severity because my body just can’t handle the constant stimuli the way it used to. Certainly food for thought.

  • SusanKH
    3 years ago

    Thank you so much for including these research findings. I am a psychiatrist but had to retire after practicing only 1 1/2 years because of severe migraines. Emotional abuse was never addressed in my training, although the other forms of abuse were. I feel now (based on my own life experiences) that emotional abuse deserves a great deal of attention, and neglect also falls under this category.

  • mrst53
    3 years ago

    My father was an alcoholic and altho he never physically abused me, there was a lot of verbal abuse in the house, not necessarily directly at me, but at my Mom and always threatening to leave. I was an only child and I always felt that the arguments were my fault. I wonder if other “only children” feel that way?

  • Kaynaydian
    3 years ago

    mrst53, I had a similar childhood – alcoholic father and there was a lot of emotional abuse, especially to my mom and my brother. I always felt like I had to be the mediator and though I avoided my father, when the arguments got heated, I’d storm in to break them up.

  • SusanKH
    3 years ago

    Thanks for having the courage to speak up! I am a psychiatrist, although in this case I don’t know if it gives me any extra insight. I think a lot of children feel the way you do. Perhaps eldest children and *especially* only children feel it most acutely? Of course there are always exceptions, but I think you are right and are highlighting a valid trend.

  • Poll