Got Migraines? You Have Triple the Risk of Another Disorder

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021

If you're one of the 37 million Americans who suffers from migraines, new research points to the high odds that you're also suffering from a mental illness.

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As if suffering from migraine headaches wasn’t punishment enough, migraine sufferers are two a half times more likely to also have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), according to a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto. For the study, published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, researchers analyzed data from a large Canadian mental health survey and found that 6 percent of migraine sufferers also suffered from GAD, compared with 2 percent of non-sufferers.

Migraines are severe and often debilitating attacks of head pain that are not caused by any underlying disease or disorder and which tend to be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. The headache itself can last anywhere from several hours to several days but may be preceded by up to several days of telltale symptoms that sufferers come to associate with impending attacks (e.g., constipation, increased thirst, mood swings, vision changes, numbness, auditory hallucinations). The headache is often followed by approximately 24 hours of residual symptoms that may include confusion, moodiness, and dizziness. While the precise cause is not fully understood, science has identified several possible triggers.

What’s worse, as this study shows, the severe and debilitating nature of migraines can also provoke anxious feelings (such as tension, worry, and fear) in the sufferer. “It is hard to plan anything if debilitating pain may strike at any point,” says Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, the Sandra Rotman Endowed Chair at University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging. And “this unpredictably can be terribly anxiety producing.” Dr. Fuller-Thomson first noted the link between migraine and GAD in the course of conducting research regarding a link between headaches and depression.

Accordingly, it did not surprise the study authors to see a robust link between migraines and GAD, which, for purposes of the study, was assessed using standards set forth by the World Health Organization. Nor did it come as a surprise them that “GAD was more prevalent among people whose pain was so debilitating that it kept them from some of their daily activities and interfered with their ability to manage household responsibilities.”

What was cause for surprise was that male sufferers were found to be twice as likely to suffer from GAD, despite the fact that in the general population, it is women who are more likely to have it. As for why that might be, Dr. Fuller-Thomson speculates that men may be “less likely to take appropriate medication for pain control, so their symptoms may be more severe.”

What’s more, given that the study also indicated that sufferers who do not have the social support of at least one confidant are five times more likely to suffer from GAD, Dr. Fuller-Thomson suggests that the gender difference may also be attributable to the level of social support sought by male sufferers versus female sufferers.

“Of particular concern are men with migraines, those who experience chronic and debilitating pain, those who are struggling to cope with their daily responsibilities and those who are socially isolated,” states Dr. Fuller-Thomson. “Doctors and other health professionals need to be especially aware of the fact that their migraine patients may be experiencing mental health problems….[and could benefit from] referral to mental health professionals may be warranted for patients who are particularly vulnerable, such as those experiencing chronic and debilitating pain and those who are socially isolated.” She hopes that future research will identify effective interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy.