Migraine headaches are recurring headaches that produce moderate or severe pain along with a number of additional, significant symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, unusually strong reactions to light and sound, and a phenomenon called an aura. While both men and women develop these headaches, women experience them much more often than men. Current scientific evidence links the presence of migraines to increased risks for developing any one of several different mental health conditions known as anxiety disorders. Migraines are also linked to increased risks for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition formerly classified as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
Over 10 percent of the world’s population is affected by migraines, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports. Women experience roughly three out of every four cases of the condition. Generally speaking, doctors will consider diagnosing the presence of the headaches in people who experience five or more episodes that feature the classic symptoms of a migraine. At the minimum, a migraine episode involves an active attack of those symptoms, as well as a period of recuperation following an attack. About 33 percent of people with migraines also experience a preliminary set of symptoms, collectively known as an aura, in advance of the headache itself. These aura symptoms can include light flashes or other obvious changes in normal vision, a reduced ability to speak or comprehend other people’s speech, and tingling in the legs or arms.
The frequency of migraines varies from person to person. According to the authors of an extensive study review published in 2013 in Psychiatric Times, individuals who experience the headaches no more than 14 days a month have a condition called episodic migraine, while individuals who experience the headaches 15 days or more a month have a condition called chronic migraine. Certain things can sharply increase the risks for an attack in any affected person. Examples of these potential migraine triggers include stress exposure, alcohol consumption, consumption of salty or processed foods, consumption of monosodium glutamate (MSG) or the artificial sweetener aspartame, an increase in physical or sexual activity, changes in the local climate, changes in sleeping patterns and the side effects of hormone-containing contraceptives or certain medications.
Links to Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions known for their ability to trigger intense, potentially debilitating forms of emotions such as dread or worry, as well as accompanying changes in the normal function of the nervous system, endocrine (hormone) system and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system. Specific forms of these disorders that appear with unusual frequency in people affected by migraine headaches include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), agoraphobia, specific phobia and panic disorder. The authors of the review in Psychiatric Times report that GAD, panic disorder and specific phobia appear in migraine sufferers more often than any other anxiety disorders. Altogether, the presence of migraines increases a person’s chances of developing an anxiety disorder by 200 percent to 400 percent.
In a person with episodic migraines, the presence of an anxiety disorder significantly increases the risks for a rise in headache frequency and the onset of chronic migraines. Similar risks appear in migraine sufferers affected by major depression. Generally speaking, anxiety disorders and depression have interconnected effects in individuals with migraines. Depression almost always occurs in association with an anxiety disorder in these individuals, and in most cases the anxiety disorder sets in before depression symptoms first appear. The authors of the Psychiatric Times review believe that anxiety and depression in migraine patients represent something considerably more serious than a simple response to the stresses of dealing with recurring headache episodes.
Migraines and PTSD
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association removed PTSD from the anxiety disorders category and placed it in its own separate category, called trauma- and stressor-related disorders. According to the authors of a 2011 study review published by the American Headache Society, people affected by migraines develop PTSD fully three to four times more often than people unaffected by migraines. These risks are higher than the migraine-related risks for either anxiety disorders or depression. At least part of the heightened risk for PTSD stems from increased exposure to traumatic events among individuals who develop migraines. While women make up the majority of migraine sufferers, men with migraines develop PTSD three to four times more frequently than women affected by the headaches.