Neurologist’s research shows abused children more likely to suffer migraines

January 15, 2015 | News, Research, Medicine and Life Sciences, UTMC
By Meghan Cunningham

Adults who experienced abuse or neglect in their childhood are more likely to develop migraines, according to new research by a University of Toledo neurologist.



“The percentage of people who were emotionally abused or neglected or experienced sexual abuse was significantly higher among people with migraine than in those who had tension-type headache,” said Dr. Gretchen Tietjen, the Clair Martig Endowed Chair in Neurology at the University. “Emotional abuse showed the strongest link.”

Tietjen’s research was published in the Dec. 24 issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The article was accompanied by an editorial.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches adults experience, producing mild to moderate pain. Migraines, which often include nausea and sensitivity to light and noise, are usually much more painful and can be severely disabling, Tietjen said.

For the study, researchers from UT, Montefiore Headache Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Vedanta Research looked at 8,305 people with migraine and 1,429 with tension-type headache from the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study. Three types of childhood maltreatment reported by participants were considered: emotional neglect, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.

Emotional child abuse involves intentionally doing or saying things to a child in order to cause harm, such as threatening violence. Emotional neglect, in contrast, can be intentional or unintentional and involves not doing things that promote emotional well-being.

A total of 24.5 percent of those with migraine had experienced emotional abuse during childhood, compared to 21.5 percent of those with tension headache. Even after taking into account factors like age, sex, race, household income, anxiety and depression, people who experienced emotional abuse before age 18 were 33 percent more likely to have migraine than tension headaches. People who had experienced emotional neglect and sexual abuse also were more likely to experience migraine as adults, but after researchers adjusted the results to take into account anxiety and depression, there was no difference between the groups.

People who experienced two forms of abuse were 50 percent more likely to have migraine than people who experienced one form of abuse.

The recent study, which was supported by the National Headache Foundation, builds on Tietjen’s previous research that found that children who are physically or emotionally abused or neglected are more likely to develop migraines and other chronic pain conditions. The stress caused by abuse can alter children’s stress response and predispose them to medical and psychiatric conditions in adulthood, Tietjen said.

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