People With Migraines Are 3 Times More Likely To Have Anxiety

“The unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of migraine pain can be extremely anxiety-producing," one researcher said.
Blake Sinclair via Getty Images

Migraines are never pleasant, but new research suggests that they may have a more damaging effect on mental health than we realized.

New research from the University of Toronto, published online last month in the journal Headache, found that people with migraines are three times more likely to develop generalized anxiety disorder than those who do not suffer from migraines.

For the study, the researchers analyzed mental health surveys from more than 2,200 Canadian adults with migraines and nearly 20,000 adults without migraines. The analysis revealed that 2 percent of people without migraines suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, compared to 6 percent of people with migraines.

And despite the fact that anxiety is much more common in women, the study showed that men with migraines were two times more likely to develop anxiety than women with migraines.

“We were surprised at the finding because women usually have a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders than men,” said Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author. The researchers speculate that men who have migraines are more susceptible to anxiety disorders because they’re less likely than women to take medication for pain, “so their migraine symptoms may be more severe and anxiety producing.”

There are many possible reasons for the migraine-anxiety connection, including biological, environmental and emotional factors. Debilitating chronic pain (which 30 percent of migraine sufferers said they experienced) and difficulties managing household responsibilities (which 28 percent said they experienced) were the two main factors causing anxiety in migraine patients, according to the study.

“We were not surprised that chronic pain played a strong role in the link between migraines and generalized anxiety disorders,” said study co-author Dr. Janay Jayanthikumar, who is a researcher in social work at the University of Toronto. “The unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of migraine pain can be extremely anxiety-producing, as it often interferes with family and work responsibilities with little or no warning.”

Lack of social support was also a huge factor ― those who did not have at least one close friend to confide in were five times more likely to have anxiety. It’s well known that social support is one of the most important tools we have for protecting mental health.

Although migraines and mental health issues are rarely discussed together, research has identified many links between the two. People with migraines are also twice as likely to suffer from depression, and previous research suggests that migraines are more common in patients with bipolar disorder. Studies have also shown that people with migraines are more likely to have panic disorders and agoraphobia.

Fuller-Thomson urged medical professionals to be more aware of these issues when treating their patients.

“Doctors and other health professionals need to be especially aware of the fact that their migraine patients may be experiencing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders,” Fuller-Thomson said. “Targeted screening for these problems and referral to mental health professionals may be warranted for patients with migraines who are particularly vulnerable.”

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