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Health-Altering Experiences

Women with migraines who suffer from concurrent depression have been found to have a higher incidence of having been abused as children, according to a study that appeared in the September 4, 2007 issue of Neurology, the medical journal for the American Academy of Neurology.

Migraine and Depression

The study's author, Gretchen Tietjen, MD, of the University of Toledo-Health Science Campus and a member of the American Academy of Neurology stated that, "This study confirms adverse experiences, particularly childhood abuse, predispose women to health problems later in life, possibly by altering neurobiological systems."

The 949 female participants in this study were queried on such subjects as their history of abuse, depression, and the characteristics of their headaches. Researchers found that 40% of the participants suffered from chronic headaches, with an incidence of more than 15 headaches per month. 72% of the women reported experiencing severe and disabling headaches. A significant 38% of the women reported having been the victims of physical or sexual abuse, and another 12% had suffered from both. These results mimic those reported in the general population.

The connection between migraine and depression is well-documented, though the reasons are still unclear. However, this new study found that women with migraine and major depression had twice the incidence of having experienced childhood sexual abuse than those who suffered from migraine alone. Furthermore, when the abuse continued on into puberty and beyond, women with migraine had five times the incidence of depression.

Long-Term Impact

Tietjen extrapolates from the study's findings that childhood abuse may lead to certain disorders that are linked to serotonin dysfunction. The study contributes to mounting evidence that childhood abuse can lead to adult ill health and the effects appear to intensify when abuse is long-term or continues on into adulthood. "The findings also support research suggesting that sexual abuse may have more impact on health than physical abuse and that childhood sexual abuse victims, in particular, are more likely to be adversely affected," states Tietjen.

Those study participants who suffered from both depression and migraine had twice the incidence of a history including multiple forms of childhood abuse as compared to those migraine sufferers who were not depressed. The women who suffered from both ailments reported having experienced physical abuse, a fear for their lives, and having been raised in an environment that included an adult substance abuser.

Tietjen comments that although there is a high incidence of abuse, and associated increases in health costs, few physicians make it part of their routine to ask migraine patients about abuse history. She believes that such questions would help to identify those migraine sufferers most at risk for developing depression.