Childhood Emotional Abuse Raises Risk of Migraine

By Pat Anson, Editor

New research is adding to the growing body of evidence linking child abuse with migraines. In a large survey of young adults, nearly two-thirds who suffer from migraines said they experienced emotional abuse as children.

"Emotional abuse showed the strongest link to increased risk of migraine," said Gretchen Tietjen, MD, University of Toledo. “Childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on health and well-being."

In the study, nearly 14,500 people aged 24 to 32 were asked the question: "How often did a parent or other adult caregiver say things that really hurt your feelings or made you feel like you were not wanted or loved?"

Of those diagnosed with migraines, 61% said they had been abused as a child. Of those who never had a migraine, 49% said they were abused.

The participants were then asked whether they had experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as children. Physical abuse was defined as being hit with a fist, kicked, or thrown down on the floor, into a wall, or down stairs. Sexual abuse included forced sexual touching or sexual relations.

Nearly half of the participants answered yes to emotional abuse, 18% said they were physically abused, and 5% sexually abused.

Those who were emotionally abused were 52% more likely to have migraine than those who were not abused. But those who were sexually or physically abused were not significantly more likely to have migraine.

“Multiple studies have shown a strong link between childhood trauma and subsequent risk for developing chronic pain in adulthood, for instance, fibromyalgia. This study appears to be showing a similar association in migraine,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford University and co-chair of the Pain Psychology Task Force at the American Academy of Pain Medicine. 

“The collective findings suggest that childhood emotional trauma has a lasting impact on emotional and sensory experience throughout life, and underscore trauma as an important therapeutic target to reduce chronic pain and its impact, and to possibly prevent chronic pain.”

A similar study published last year found that children who witnessed domestic violence between their parents were significantly more likely to experience migraine headaches as adults.

Researchers at the University of Toronto surveyed over 12,000 women and 10,000 men who participated in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health. Participants were asked if they experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse or if they witnessed parental domestic violence as children.

"We found the more types of violence the individual had been exposed to during their childhood, the greater the odds of migraine. For those who reported all three types of adversities -- parental domestic violence, childhood physical and sexual abuse -- the odds of migraine were a little over three times higher for men and just under three times higher for women" said Sarah Brennenstuhl, PhD, first author of the study.

Previous research has also shown the risk of depression and suicide ideation is about twice as high for migraine sufferers. People with migraine under the age of 30 have six times the odds of depression compared to migraineurs aged 65 and over.

Migraine is thought to affect a billion people worldwide and 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. It affects three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can also cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.