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Women with a childhood history of abuse may be at increased risk for depression and migraine, a new study reports.
Researchers surveyed 949 women who had 15 or more headaches a month: 38 percent reported physical or sexual abuse, and about 12 percent said they had experienced both physical and sexual abuse in the past.
Women with migraine and major depression were four times more likely to have a history of childhood maltreatment, while those with migraine and less severe depression were twice as likely, according to the Sept. 4 study in the journal Neurology.
“The extreme stress that can occur in that kind of situation actually changes the brain,” says lead researcher Gretchen Tietjen, M.D., professor and chair of neurology at the University of Toledo College of Medicine in Ohio. “It can change future responses to stress, and probably makes a person more vulnerable later in life to pain syndromes, depression, and mood disorders.”
Similarly, a survey of 225 men and women by Dr. Tietjen and colleagues published in June in the journal Headache found that those with migraine as well as fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome were more likely to report a history of physical or sexual abuse.
Fred Sheftell, M.D., director of the New England Center for Headaches in Stamford, CT, says abuse may sensitize parts of the brains involved in pain and emotional expression, which in turn may trigger migraines.
“I don't think that everyone who has bad migraines has been abused,” Dr. Tietjien says. However, she does encourage people with headaches to tell their doctors if they have experienced abuse so that they can refer them to counselors or psychiatrists for therapy. “I think doing those things leads to a better playing field for treating the headache,” she says.