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The Connection Between Headaches and Abuse

September 28th, 2007 · 3 Comments

Did you know that a history of abuse - emotional, physical and sexual – is common in women who have headaches.  A history abuse is also associated with depression and stress.  So reports a new study by Gretchen Tietjen, (done when she was a Professor of Neurology at the University of Toledo and Director of their Headache Treatment and Research Program).

Emotional abuse was the most common in women who had migraines:  42% of women reported this.  37% reported a history of physical or sexual abuse.  All of these types of abuse increase the risk of depression, as well as stress related to abuse or fear of abuse.

How did this affect their headaches?

Women who were being abused currently and who had a history of childhood abuse, had:

  • more headache-related disability
  • more severe and more frequently headaches
  • a higher likelihood of depression
  • more current symptoms of stress
  • more physical complaints

One of the most interesting aspects that Dr. Tietjen is now looking at is if the connection between abuse and headaches is only psychological – “just” because of worries and stress – or if abuse causes “psycho-neuro-biological” changes.  That is, does abuse cause physical changes that predispose women to headaches.

Her recommendations:

  • All neurologists should screen patients with headaches for abuse.
  • Patients with severe, chronic headaches, especially when the headaches don’t respond to treatment, should be asked specifically about all 3 types of abuse – in their history, as well as currently.
  • Refer patients who report abuse for counseling.

This is an important study, with good recommendations.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

(This study was presented at the 49th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society.)

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Judy Terwilliger // Sep 30, 2007 at 10:52 am

    This is all very interesting but what about the 60% who do not suffer from any kind of abuse and suffer from daily headaches. Many of the people are young women who are in their teens who one day get a heachache that just doesn’t go away. Many of these are teens who have no history of headaches and in my daughter’s case have not found any medications that really helps. We have not found a genetic link either so there are many out there who do not fall neatly into the genetic or abuse catagory. It’s very easy to label people and put them in catagories and say that because of this or that in their life they are more likely to have headaches. However there is a big group out there who do not fall into any of those catagories who have a chemical inbalance that has no history to point too. These are otherwise healthy women who have no history of headaches, no family history or no abuse who don’t fit into any group except that one day out of the blue they wake up with a headache that never goes away. Certainly it may help to know if someone does have a history of abuse so that they can get help. However for those who do not as well as those who do it’s very frustrating and shows how little we still know about the brain works when dealing with headaches.

  • How to Cope with Pain // Sep 30, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    You’re very right that it’s frustrating when there are groups that respond to various treatments, but you haven’t found anything yet. Keep trying.

    And I agree that we are just beginning to understand some of the issues involved in how the brain generate and heals pain.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Tara // Jan 25, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Through my family of origin and from being abandoned by them, and from marrying into a family whose value systems were similar, I have suffered from physical, emotional and verbal abuse for nearly 40 years. The migraines started at 16 and were chronic by 17. Deep tissue massage and strong pain medications are the most effective barriers to prevention and avoiding the disabling pain. Intervention is needed twice a day and anti-depressants seem the most effective in prevention. I fear abuse and abandonment everyday, and the formation of head-ache occurs by mid-morning even if some relief is provided through sleep. Now that I am in an abuse-free environment I am aware that the headaches persistregardlessly.

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