Migraines can be Trauma-Induced

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. They are also 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. Though they don’t last forever, bad ones can last for many days, even weeks. They 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 and sounds
  • Throbbing or painful pulsing of the head

Migraines are three times more common in women than men and affect approximately 10% of the population. Some researchers believe that migraines can be genetic. 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. This puts 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 more common in young women. It is also a huge contributing factor to PTSD. Overall, research has found that 20-25% of women who experience chronic migraines fit the criteria for PTSD.

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

PTSD Symptoms that cause Migraines

Trauma is the cause of lots of mental health disorders. However, it seems hard to believe that trauma can cause migraines. When migraines are triggered by PTSD it 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 and experience stress. In some cases it 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. Irritability and anger can be just as common as the dull pounding in your head or the 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. This is 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 keep a list of triggers for migraines and avoid 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. Learning to cope with trauma may come with the added benefit of reduced migraines.

How we can help

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. Many people 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 staff use research-based treatments for young girls who face PTSD and trauma as a fact of life. 

Call us today at (435) 586-2500 to talk about how we can help your daughter. 



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