Childhood Abuse and Headaches As Adults

Childhood and Headaches as an Adult. Echo/Getty Images

Did you know that abuse as a child drives the pathogenesis of many pain-related medical conditions?  This is why a person's doctor may inquire about their childhood, especially if that person is coming in with symptoms of a chronic pain disorder — like chronic headaches or migraines.

Let's explore the potential link between headaches and childhood abuse. Also, it's important to understand that just because you have migraines or a headache disorder does NOT mean that you were abused as a child and vice versa — childhood abuse does NOT mean you are going to develop a headache disorder.

This is an important concept to understand. A link simply means an association or a connection — it does not mean that one condition causes another.

Is There a Link Between Headaches and Abuse?

Several studies have found a connection between headaches and childhood abuse, especially emotional abuse. One study in Headache found a "dose-response" relationship between the number of adverse experiences in childhood and frequent headaches — which means that the greater the number of adverse experiences children experience, the greater the likelihood of frequent headaches as adults. Exposure to domestic violence as a child has also been linked to headaches.

Is There a Specific Link Between Migraines and Abuse?

In another study in Headache, it was found that both men and women who experienced three or more adverse childhood experiences – which included parental domestic violence, physical abuse, and forced sexual abuse – were more than twice as likely to have migraines than people who experienced no adverse childhood experiences.

Again, a "dose-response" relationship was found, meaning that the chance of migraines increased as the number of adverse clinical experiences increased. This link held true regardless of whether the participants suffered from depression or anxiety.

How Does Childhood Abuse Predict Head Pain?

The science behind the link between child abuse and headaches is still unclear.

But more and more research is being done on the detrimental effects of chronic and early stress on the brain — both in terms of the brain's anatomy and how it functions. Stress too seems to affect the way we feel pain. This can lead to hyperalgesia – which is when a person has an increased sensitivity to pain. This may contribute to the formation of chronic headache disorders. Finally, early life stress may alter our genetic makeup – especially the genes that control the expression of hormones related to mood and a person's stress response.

What Does This All Mean?

The purpose of understanding the headache and migraine link is to both improve prevention and treatment of headache disorders. In this case, though, the primary take home point is our need as a society to find more ways to protect children from abuse. The multiple negative ramifications and harms that stem from such abuse are too great and so unnecessary.

Final Note

If you think bad childhood experiences have affected your headache health and overall health and well-being, please open up to your doctor and get the assistance you need to cope.

Be strong and good to yourself by seeking help.

While this article does not focus on the specifics of domestic violence, if you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is please seek help by contacting a domestic violence center near you or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or 1−800−787−3224.

Similarly, if you suspect a child is being abused or need assistance yourself, please seek help immediately. One resource is ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

Sources:

Anda, R., Tietjen, G., Schulman, E., Felitti, V., & Croft J. (2010). Adverse Childhood Experiences and Frequent Headaches in Adults. Headaches, Oct;50(9):1473-81.

Anda, R.F. et al. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci.2006 Apr;256:174-86.

Brennenstuhl S & Fuller-Thomson E. The Painful Legacy of Childhood Violence: Migraine Headaches Among Adult Survivors of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Headache. 2015 July-Aug;55(7):973-83.

Murgatroyd C. Dynamic DNA methylation programs persistent adverse effects of early-life stress. Nat Neurosci. 2009; May12(3):1559-66.

DISCLAIMER: This site is for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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