Migraine Comorbidities: PTSD

Written by Jessica Puterbaugh | February 21, 2023

Did you know that research shows PTSD is comorbid with chronic migraine? In fact, people with migraine are 3 to 4 times more likely to live with PTSD. [1]  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by a reaction to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD is quite common and can take a heavy toll, causing issues for people in their relationships, at work/school and in all aspects of their daily lives. They may feel isolated, be unable to process and/or express emotions, and experience a wide variety of negative impacts on their mental and physical health.

About PTSD

PTSD is an anxiety disorder, but it is distinct from other types of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, as it occurs as a result of trauma triggering feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and horror.[2]

There are many symptoms of PTSD, including:

  • Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and/or memories of the event
  • Sweating, shaking, chest pains, dizziness
  • Irritability
  • A heightened startle response
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Efforts to avoid things that trigger such memories
  • Distorted thoughts
  • Low mood/energy
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Guilt and shame
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

People who live with PTSD experience an elevated “fight or flight” response. Perceived threats trigger their autonomic nervous system, which leads to chemical alterations in the brain. This creates a sense of danger and other symptoms, even when there is no actual threat or the threat is no longer present.[3]

The most common cause of PTSD is trauma, including physical and sexual abuse. People who have experienced life-threatening situations, such as military combat, typically have the highest risk of developing PTSD.[4] However, about 26-52% of women who’ve experienced childhood abuse and interpersonal violence have PTSD also. [5] Interestingly, women are more likely than men to develop PTSD and people with certain occupations—such as law enforcement personnel, firefighters, healthcare workers, emergency responders, and journalists—face added risks. [6]

The Link Between Migraine and PTSD

Research suggests that migraine and PTSD commonly occur together.[7] While the exact link between the two is unknown, people with migraine may have a greater chance of developing PTSD when exposed to traumatic events , and people with PTSD are more likely to have migraine. The presence of migraine may indicate the severity of a person’s PTSD, and living with both conditions may increase overall disability.  [8]

In addition, the type of traumatic event a person with PTSD has experienced can increase the likelihood of headaches in general. For example, if someone was in an accident or situation where they experienced a head injury, they might be more likely to experience migraine and problems with headaches. [9]

Managing Migraine and PTSD

If you are living with migraine and suspect you may have PTSD, it’s important to talk with your doctor, especially if your symptoms last longer than a few months, are very upsetting and/or are disrupting your quality of life. A qualified professional can help you identify the best mix of treatment options.

PTSD is commonly treated using a mix of medication and therapy. Keeping up on activities that promote brain health can help both with PTSD and migraine:

  • Prioritize sleep
  • Manage stress
  • Get regular exercise
  • Stay hydrated and eat a nutritious diet
  • Practice consistent self-care

Other options that may help include:

  • Art therapy
  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Getting outside and enjoying nature
  • Connecting with others who have had similar experiences through a support group

It’s important to understand that PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time, and that getting treatment early can help prevent symptoms from getting worse.

Let Us Know!

Do you experience migraine and PTSD? What tips can you offer on coping with both conditions?

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