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Research Links Abuse/Post-traumatic Stress to Migraines

March 31, 2009

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to suffer from migraine and chronic daily headaches, according to new research led by a neurologist from Drexel University College of Medicine. The study of almost 600 people, predominantly women, at six headache centers across the U.S. also found that a majority of the migraine and PTSD sufferers had been victims of physical or sexual abuse. 

The relative frequency of PTSD found in the total group of all headache participants was 25%. That is significantly greater than the prevalence of PTSD (8%) reported in previous studies of the general population. Of those with PTSD, 72.9% of chronic daily headache sufferers reported physical or sexual abuse, as did 59.6% of episodic migraineurs.

“This study and others like it show that not only do victims of abuse often suffer a lifetime of mental anguish, such as PTSD, they often also endure physical pain, such as migraines, years after the abuse has stopped,” said B. Lee Peterlin, DO, assistant professor of neurology at Drexel University College of Medicine and lead author of the paper which will be published in the April issue of the journal Headache.

Peterlin and colleagues analyzed questionnaires completed by participants, all of whom had sought treatment at headache centers for migraines or chronic daily headaches. The questionnaires measured factors like headache impact, depression, and traumatic life events that would meet PTSD criteria. Those include physical and sexual assault, combat, transportation accidents, and natural disasters. The study found that headache related disability was significantly greater in migraine patients with PTSD as compared to those without PTSD.

“These findings, taken together with previous study findings, suggest that if PTSD is identified and treated in migraine sufferers, particularly victims of abuse, it may reduce migraine related disability and progression to chronic daily headache,” said Peterlin.

Other authors on the paper include: Gretchen Tietjen, University of Toledo-Health Science Campus; Jan L. Brandes, Nashville Neuroscience Group; Susan Rubin, Evanston Northwestern Healthcare; Ellen Drexler, Maimonides Medical Center; Jeffrey Lidicker, University of California at Berkeley; and Sarah Meng, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

The research was funded in part by a grant from the Women’s Issues Special Interest Section of the American Headache Society.