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HeadWay Issue #222 - Child Abuse and Migraine
April 20, 2023

In this issue:

Child Abuse and Migraine

Say what?! Big 5 Personality Traits

Child Abuse and Migraine

Thanks to Kay for sending in a question to the HeadWay MailRoom (see link below to contribute)! Her question had to do with the link between child abuse and migraine.

A few years ago there was a flurry of interest and a quite a few headlines about the possibility that child abuse raised your risk of migraine in adulthood. But what exactly were these studies saying?

Child Abuse

First of all, researchers are interested first in various types of child abuse, but also trauma later in life, because conditions such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) may also give us clues into the connection.

Abuse in childhood may include (these from the CDC):
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Emotional abuse
The last one may be the least generally understood, but it basically refers to doing or saying things to cause harm, such as threatening physical abuse.

What's the connection?

We should say first that the link between migraine and physical abuse is tricky. If a link is found, is it because of the physical harm? Or emotional harm?

Perhaps because of this challenge, research has often focused on the other types of abuse. But although there is a link, it isn't nearly as strong as you might think.

An important study published in 2014 failed to find a significant direct connection in any type of abuse - except for emotional abuse. Yes, children who experienced emotional abuse were more likely to experience migraine as adult, but the increased risk was small.

A study in 2017 came at the question from a different angle - could certain personality traits be connected to both child abuse and migraine? For example, neuroticism is a trait that measures how much you see the world as unsafe or threatening. People with a high amount of neuroticism may be withdrawn or may take other protective measures.

And yes, this personality trait, but only this one, tended to be more common in migraine patients who experienced abuse as children. But how helpful is this? Both migraine and child abuse would naturally lead to a more self-protective posture in life.

So, now what?

A survey of the literature about migraine and child abuse will leave you with a lot of "maybe" and "it could be that..." and "we don't yet know..." We certainly know that child abuse can lead to physical changes and developmental problems, so a connection would not be surprising. But we really know so little about how the brain works and why migraine happens - although we're learning fast - it's hard to come to a solid conclusion, especially since the connection in studies so far is not especially strong.

We're probably left in the same place as we are with other things that may go along with migraine. The most helpful thing is to be aware of both, and to treat both.

If you experienced significant abuse, or especially if you're experiencing abuse now, it will be very helpful for your doctor to know. If the situation is ongoing, it's critical to find help to get out of the abusive situation. If it's past abuse, you and your doctor may be able to find better treatments by having a better "big picture" of your medical history.

Child abuse may or may not factor greatly in your treatment today, even if it raised your risk. And remember, even if you experienced some past trauma or abuse, it may not be related to your migraine attacks - or you may never know what the connection is. But the better you and your doctor understand the "whole you", the easier it will be to find effective treatment.

Thanks, Kay, for bringing up this important topic!

Say what?! Big 5 Personality Traits

If you're like me, hearing about migraine and personality traits makes me immediately suspicious. Mainly because of the way some doctors (and others) in the past would write off migraine because "you're just high strung" or "you need to learn to let go".

An other problem with personality measurements is that human beings are FAR more complex than a list of 5, 10, or 50 traits.

However, attempts have been made for the purpose of research, and one such attempt is the "Big 5", which was used in the study mentioned above. These traits are not considered to be good or bad, but more of a continuum.

Annabelle G.Y. Lim at Simply Psychology explains the 5 in this way:
  • Conscientiousness – impulsive, disorganized vs. disciplined, careful
  • Agreeableness – suspicious, uncooperative vs. trusting, helpful
  • Neuroticism – calm, confident vs. anxious, pessimistic
  • Openness to Experience – prefers routine, practical vs. imaginative, spontaneous
  • Extraversion – reserved, thoughtful vs. sociable, fun-loving

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
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