Professor recognized for research on headaches, strokes

July 26, 2010 | Research, UToday
By Meghan Cunningham

A University of Toledo researcher’s work with the impact of childhood abuse on future pain and health disorders is receiving national attention.



Dr. Gretchen Tietjen, professor and chair of neurology, director of the Headache Treatment and Research Program, and director of the Stroke Program, recently gave four oral and two poster presentations on the breadth of her research at the American Headache Society’s annual meeting in Los Angeles.

A study Tietjen led of more than 1,300 migraine patients revealed a link between the risk of stroke and heart attack and the number of forms of abuse a person suffered as a child, such as neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

“It’s fascinating,” Tietjen said. “A few years ago you didn’t see much on the links between childhood stresses and future health problems, but research in this area is really starting to grow.”

The study was noted in a number of journals and news outlets following the June conference. Building on additional work that had already shown that childhood maltreatment is linked to migraines, this study showed that early abuse also puts adults with migraines at greater risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, Tietjen said.

“Dr. Tietjen and her teams are pioneers in understanding the relationship between negative childhood experiences and migraine,” Dr. David Dodick, president of the American Headache Society, said in a news release. “Now we need to drill even deeper to understand the relationship between migraine, aura status, childhood maltreatment and [cardiovascular] disease risk.”

Because people with migraines can be predisposed to other pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia and irritable bowl syndrome, finding the best ways to treat and intervene early could really have an impact on the health of those patients, Tietjen said.

“It’s interesting to learn what course has been set in motion and work to find ways to stop it,” she said. “If you are able to treat the headaches, would that be enough to stop related future conditions? We don’t know yet.”

Tietjen’s research in this area continues. She is involved in another study with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” of the general population that surveys thousands about stressful childhood experiences and physical and mental illnesses, including headache, to look for links there.

A larger study, “The American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study,” also is under way to investigate if there is a link between child abuse and migraines specifically or headache pain more broadly, Tietjen said.

“I’d love to be able to take the information from these surveys and research to find ways to help people,” she said.

Tietjen’s research crosses disciplines; her work on stroke is being recognized at the same time as her migraine studies. She earned a first-place Innovation Award at the 2010 International Stroke Conference for her research on biomarkers that linked migraine and stroke in young women.

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