Migraine and childhood abuse

Dr. Gretchen Tietjen is a headache doctor and researcher from the University of Toledo who has really brought attention to the important link between abuse and migraine. Her research has brought this topic to the forefront for doctors treating and investigating migraine.

In 2010, Dr. Tietjen and colleagues published a three-part series in the journal Headache describing the results of a survey of 1,348 migraine patients from 11 headache centers across the United States and Canada. They gathered information from adults about headaches and experiences of childhood abuse and neglect. Abuse included physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Neglect included both physical and emotional neglect.

Here are the study highlights:

  • Childhood abuse was common in these patients. Fifty-eight percent of patients had experienced some form of childhood maltreatment.

- 21 percent had been physically abused

- 25 percent had been sexually abused

- 38 percent had experienced emotional abuse

- 22 percent physical neglect

- 38 percent emotional neglect

- 9 percent experienced physical, sexual, AND emotional abuse as children

- 17 percent were both physically and emotionally neglected

  • Those who had been abused started having migraine 3 years earlier than those without abuse
  • Having been abused as a child nearly doubled the risk of having very frequent or daily headaches
  • Childhood abuse increased the risk for having other pain problems in addition to migraine

- Emotional abuse was linked with increased risks for also having irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis

- Physical neglect was linked with arthritis

- Physical abuse increased risk for endometriosis in women

- Physical neglect increased risk for developing uterine fibroids

Unfortunately, many doctors don't routinely ask about abuse. Doctors from Mersin University in Turkey reported a case of an 11-year-old girl diagnosed with migraine. Despite having typical migraine treatment, her headaches didn't improve. Her doctors thought she might be depressed and had her meet with a psychologist. During her sessions, the girl confessed that she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend for two years. After this confession and punishment for the abuser, the headaches dramatically improved. This story shouldn't suggest that this girl didn't have migraines -- rather her abuse experience clearly aggravated her headache disorder. The authors of this study concluded that doctors need to make a point of asking patients about abuse routinely, especially migraine sufferers with more problematic, frequent, or difficult-to-treat migraines.

If you have been abused, even if that abuse was long ago, be sure to share this with your doctor. The past can and often does affect our present.

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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.

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