Migraine Symptoms May Be Linked To Childhood Trauma

More and more research is being conducted that analyzes the effects of childhood trauma on adult health. Childhood trauma is defined as a life event that threatens the safety of the child or their caregivers. It can either be acute or chronic in nature. Typical symptoms from a traumatic event include reduced ability to concentrate, trouble sleeping, withdrawal, anger, and some severe psychiatric conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Recent studies are also beginning to show that children take away other long-lasting mental effects from these situations as well, such as migraine symptoms that can develop in adulthood.

Can migraine symptoms be linked to childhood trauma?

Trauma can come in many different forms, such as intentional trauma that includes physical and sexual abuse or domestic violence, as well as coming from an external event such as natural disasters, illness, and car accidents. Trauma tends to be unique to the individual, so it is not always easy to identify, especially between age groups and in children who have difficulty expressing emotions or thoughts.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, 679,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. These traumas often lead to the victim of childhood abuse developing certain psychological conditions like harming others or themselves, which can last well into adulthood if not treated properly. We are also finding links between these childhood traumas and the likelihood of developing migraine symptoms into adulthood as well.

Research from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study included 17,337 adult members from the Kaiser Health plan in San Diego, CA. The purpose of this research was to evaluate the effect of eight separate adverse childhood experiences and what cumulative effect they had on adulthood migraines. The eight categories used were abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), witnessing domestic violence, growing up with mentally ill, substance abusing, or criminal household members, and parental separation or divorce.

The results of this study showed that each ACE increased the prevalence and risk of frequent headaches in adulthood. The risk of migraines became two-fold once five separate ACEs were present, compared with patients who had zero ACEs.

In a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto, it was discovered that three distinct childhood traumas greatly increased the chance of developing migraine symptoms as an adult. In fact, the more traumas the child was exposed to, the greater the chance of migraine later in life. There was a sample size of 12,638 women and 10,358 men aged 18 and over. Sarah Brennenstuhl, PhD and co-author of this study said:

“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.”

The study goes on to show that witnessing domestic violence was by far the greatest link to developing migraine symptoms. It was shown that girls who saw parental domestic abuse were 64% more likely to have migraines as an adult, while boys were at an increased chance of 52%.

Research from the American Academy of Neurology

Research conducted by the American Academy of Neurology was also recently released that also showed the huge impact of childhood traumas with migraine development. The study included 14,484 people aged 24 to 32, of which 14% reported being diagnosed with migraines. Emotional abuse was assessed by asking, “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?”

According to this study, people who were emotionally abused were 32% more likely to have migraines than those were never abused. While this study does not show cause and effect directly, it does provide a strong likelihood of a connection. Author Gretchen Tietjen, MD, from the University of Toledo stated:

“Emotional abuse showed the strongest link to increased risk of migraine. Childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on health and well-being.”

What to expect from a migraine

Migraine is a disease that can commonly be found all across the world. It generally starts to occur in childhood or early adulthood and is often a chronic condition. In many cases, migraines can progress through four distinct stages, which are prodromal, aura, headache attack, and post-dromal.

Prodromal is a series of symptoms that happen before a migraine starts. It can include some or all of certain symptoms. Not every migraine sufferer will experience this stage, though. These symptoms include certain food cravings, increased thirst and urination, constipation, mood changes, or neck pain.

Aura may occur right before or during a migraine attack. Most people who suffer from migraines do not experience auras. The symptoms for this stage include visual disturbances such as flashes of light and blurred vision. It can also include weakening of the muscles, vision loss, tingling sensation in the extremities, and difficulty speaking.

The actual migraine attack phase generally lasts 72 hours untreated. The frequency is unique to each individual and is usually accompanied by pain on one or both sides of the head, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. Migraine pain also builds with time rather than presenting immediately as severe.

The final phase is right after a migraine attack finishes. Exhaustion is a common feeling in some, while others feel great relief and happiness. It is best to understand how migraines affect you so you can track your own patterns.

When to see a doctor 

It is always to good idea to see a doctor if these patterns change. You should also seek medical attention immediately if you experience the following:

  • A migraine with a fever
  • A headache after any head trauma
  • Abrupt headache pain
  • A headache with a stiff neck or seizures

Watch Nadine Harris’ TED Talk for more on the research linking childhood trauma to later health issues.