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Pain from migraine & severe headache increases suicide risk

The pain from Migraines and severe headaches can make a person feel weary, isolated, and hopeless. A recent study also surmised this type of head pain may increase the likelihood of attempted suicide.1 Drs. Breslau, Schultz, Lipton, Peterson, Welch conducted a study to determine whether or not there was a greater risk of attempted suicide in Migraineurs and those with severe headaches vs. people without.

The participants in the study, randomly selected by phone, met diagnostic criteria according to the International Headache Society’s International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd Edition (ICHD-II). The more than 1100 subjects were split into three different groups; those with Migraine, individuals with severe non-Migraine headache, and respondents with had no record of anything more than a mild headache (this group used as the control).

The researchers asked participants in each group about the disabling nature of their Migraine and headache pain, how many work or school days they missed, and if housework or leisure activities were affected. Questions were asked at the beginning and end of the study regarding depression, anxiety, levels of pain intensity and any previous suicide attempts.

After following the groups for two years, researchers discovered that participants with Migraine and severe, non-Migraine headaches had a 4 times greater risk of attempting suicide than the subjects without Migraine or headache. The level of pain played a role in attempted suicide as well – study subjects with a higher level of Migraine and non-Migraine pain were at greater risk for attempted suicide. In fact, each time the pain intensity scale went up by one point, the risk of attempted suicide went up by 17%.

There are a few interesting points about this study. It appears the increased risk of attempted suicide may not be expressly related to Migraine and/or severe non-Migraine headaches, rather it is the level of pain that might be the important influence. Depression and anxiety, two conditions that are often comorbid with Migraine and headache disorders, were also assessed into the study. While these may play a role in attempted suicide, researchers determined that pain level was the strongest risk factor for suicide. Researchers also suggest that it would be beneficial to examine other pain conditions in conjunction with the question of attempted suicide.

My thoughts on pain and this topic are a bit complex. I understand what it feels like to have chronic, debilitating pain with no end in sight. Having said that, I’ve learned coping skills along the way that have helped me try to absorb, understand and live with the pain I’m in. A vital component missing from a Migraine management plan is learning how to emotionally “manage” this disease. Perhaps our Migraine management plan needs a mandatory overhaul. In addition to reducing the frequency and severity of Migraines, we need to teach coping skills to every Migraineur so no one feels so very hopeless.

References 1. Breslau et al. Migraine Headaches and Suicide Attempt. Headache, March 9. 2.Leavitt, S.B., M.A., PhD. an Ugly Truth: Headache and Suicide Attempts. Pain News/Research Updates. March 15, 2012.

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.


  • Renee
    5 years ago

    In her final paragraph, the writer seems to have missed the major point of the study: it’s the pain level, and not the emotions surrounding the illness, that appear linked to increased suicide. As someone who suffers from episodic migraines, I purposely do not keep a gun in my home. Around half a dozen times a year, I wake up in the middle of the night, completely blind-sighted by a migraine: crying, crawling to the bathroom (because I can’t walk), laying on the cold tile floor between vomiting and calling out to my husband: “I want to die–please make me die.” Thank god he understands what’s happening. No amount of “coping skills” could ever trump that kind of physical pain for me.

  • monicaburek
    6 years ago

    I am finding myself struggling with this very thing right now. The pain is never ending and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. I am getting help from both a psychiatrist and a medical doctor. All of the suggestions they give me sound good but it is easier said then done. I forgot what it feels like to not have a migraine. I have had a migraine for 10 months in that 10 months there has been 5 days that were headache free. I have no relief and it is starting to really be a struggle to continue on each day. I do so for my family but I would like to be able to do so for me…

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator author
    6 years ago

    Hi monicaburek,

    You are correct, it’s a struggle to have any kind of daily chronic pain as it can be isolating and depressing. I’m glad to hear you are working with professionals to help you through this difficult period.

    But the 10 month (is it migraine pain?)cycle you’ve been in really needs to be broken. There are some options you can discuss with your doctor to end your pain. You may want to put a call into your doctor sooner rather than later to discuss a medrol steroid pack or IV infusion of magnesium sultfate. You can find more information on this topic from Teri in this link:

    Please let me know how you are doing, OK?

  • Carol Hayes
    7 years ago

    I honestly believe migraine pain is the worst pain I’ve ever had, including labor and c-sections. I did have a spinal headache, but at least lying down helped, and the blood patch worked quickly.
    Nobody seems to understand that stress is a trigger sometimes, but it isn’t the cause. It is also a symptom, in that it prevents us from living the life we want. Other chronic conditions prevent us from doing many things, but migraines can prohibit even the smallest of enjoyments.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk
    7 years ago

    Hi Cindi, that’s just my point – when our pain is so great we know how to cope with it. I’ve been lower than low many, many times and my illnesses and TBI have taken my life to places I never dreamed of. But because my conditions are chronic ( lifelong) rather than episodic (occasionally) accepting, coping and learning how to live with chronic illness is paramount in our lives. In order to do this I have had help along the way, not suggested by the medical community but by figuring out how to get help myself. If our Migraine management plan included how to cope with a chronic illness it may help many of us from becoming hopeless.

  • Deborah Marie
    7 years ago

    My pain is so bad I am always asked by the doctor about suicide. Thx for the post

  • Nancy Harris Bonk
    7 years ago

    Hi Blake, thanks for reading. One of the things medical professionals tell cancer patients is how important support it. Along with that goes dealing with cancer. Doctors will usually make sure cancer patients are given information on how and where to copel with the new diagnosis. That’s exactly what I’m saying – when people are diagnosed with a chronic illness the doctor also includes information on how to cope with it. If the doctor cannot provide that for us, they should tell us where to find the help.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk
    7 years ago

    Hi Jeff, thanks for reading. I ‘m not sure why my post has been interpreted as “blaming the victim.” I am the LAST person to blame Migraineurs or any other person with chronic illness. Having several chronic illnesses, my point here was not that it is OUR fault (I don’t know how a genetic neurological disease could be anyone’s fault) but that the medical profession does not spend enough time teaching us how to LIVE with chronic illness. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who have told me they don’t know how to deal with living in chronic pain. Wouldn’t it then make sense for us to learn how to cope with it?

  • Cindi Moyer
    7 years ago

    Emotional management is complex in itself. I was better at it when I was not alone. Now I am single, my children are grown (although they live in the same city) and for the most part, my co-workers hate that they have to cover work when I’m missing, to the point now where I was recently given a sick restriction letter… have to get a doctor note every time I miss work, etc. Have FMLA now (thank goodness for my doctor) but with the pain, lonliness, and lack of support… I have to admit that there are often times when in tears I ask God why I am left here to suffer with this? I know there is a reason, but emotional management is non-exixtant when I’m at that point. And I know that there are many others of you that have been there, too.

  • Janene Zielinski
    7 years ago

    The fact you shared has reminded me to tell my single migraine friend how much she means to me. Thank you for your honesty.

  • MJ
    7 years ago

    “A vital component missing from a Migraine management plan is learning how to emotionally “manage” this disease.”

    I wholeheartedly agree!

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