More Than a Headache–Introducing Trauma-Induced Migraines

More Than a Headache–Introducing Trauma-Induced Migraines

It’s a well-known fact that headaches are awful. No one wants to end up with a headache, and no one wants to deal with chronic headaches. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), headaches are the most common form of pain and the most common reason for doctor visits, missed school, or missed work. Migraines are a form of particularly awful chronic headaches, but very few know that migraines can be caused by trauma.

What Are Migraines? 

Migraines are severe headaches described by NINDS as pounding or throbbing pain in the head. Researchers recognize that migraines are a debilitating condition, and though they don’t last forever, bad ones can last for many days, even weeks. Migraines make it nearly impossible to complete daily tasks and can cause other health issues. Migraines can come with other symptoms including:

  • Sensitivity to light, particularly an onset from an aura or pulsating light
  • Sensitivity to smells
  • Sensitivity of sounds
  • Throbbing or painful pulsing of the head 

Migraines are three times more common in women than men and affect approximately 10 percent of the population. Some researchers believe that migraines can be genetic. Migraines have no one cause, but they can be influenced by stress, hormones, bright flashing light, lack of food or sleep, even trauma. Those with frequent migraines should talk to their doctor to rule out any severe neurological conditions. 

Migraines and Trauma

Though they seem unrelated, migraines can be caused by trauma—more specifically, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers have found that the presence of trauma-related injury or PTSD can increase the chances of chronic migraines substantially. Both migraines and PTSD are three times more common in women than men, putting teen girls with trauma and PTSD at risk for migraines as they deal with their mental health. Interpersonal trauma (a name for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse or neglect), is also more common in young women than men and is a huge contributing factor to PTSD. Overall, research has found that 20-25 percent of women who experience chronic migraines fit the criteria for PTSD. 

Looking at Figure 1, researchers examining headaches determined that PSTD rated the highest in the general population as the condition that accompanies migraines in teens. The cause is thought to be that those with PTSD have more general life stressors than those without PTSD, which triggers migraines. The same study determined that 60 percent of those who have migraines and PTSD experienced physical or sexual abuse as the main traumatic event(s) of their lives. 

Trauma is the cause of lots of mental health disorders, though it seems hard to believe that trauma can cause migraines. When migraines are triggered by PTSD they could be a reaction to the following signs and symptoms of PTSD: 

  • Recurrent intrusive thoughts on situations, flashbacks, general stress from the event. This can cause undue stress reactions, triggering a migraine. 
  • Recurrent distressing dreams, causing insomnia or sleep changes. This can trigger a migraine as the person is overtired and lethargic. 
  • Intense psychological distress due to exposure to a trigger. This can cause a person to react in strange ways, experience stress, and in some cases may cause intense physical pain. Any of these can also cause a migraine. 
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger. These can go hand in hand with migraines, as often those who are feeling a dull pounding in their head from a migraine are upset, as are those experiencing anxiety from PTSD. 
  • Efforts to avoid people, avoid PTSD triggers and avoid attachments. People who isolate for too long can also experience migraines and mood swings as a symptom of limited exposure to others, and limited exposure to healthy attachments. 

Researchers believe that changes in the brain from PTSD along with many of the above symptoms are what cause PTSD-induced migraines. Mainly, dysfunction of the autonomic system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis are at fault. Also, the chemicals that cause happiness in the brain—serotonin and norepinephrine—have notably lower levels in those who suffer from PTSD and migraines, further linking the two. 

Treatment For Migraines and Trauma

There is no clear-cut treatment for migraines, though doctors can recommend certain medications, methods of slowing or reducing the symptoms of migraines, or even keeping a list of triggers for migraines and avoiding them. Part of easing migraine pain might look like attending therapy regularly and being tested and treated for PTSD. Dealing with trauma is a very important part of healing overall, and learning to cope with trauma may come with the added benefit of reduced migraines.

Migraines are often disabling and can make everyday tasks near-impossible. The pain of migraines can be terrible and cause a lot of stress and anxiety in those trying to work through their mental anguish. Those with trauma or PTSD may not be aware that their unresolved trauma is taking a toll on their health and causing frequent migraines. For help with trauma in teenage girls, turn to Havenwood Academy. At Havenwood Academy, our professional and empathetic staff use research-based treatments to address the unfortunate number of young girls who face PTSD and interpersonal trauma as a fact of life. We also help teens with attachment issues recover their social and emotional skills with therapy and consistent routine. Our sprawling Utah facility even offers animal therapy as a way to help young women address their emotional and therapeutic needs. Call us today at (435) 586-2500 to talk about how we can help your daughter. 


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