This study confirms adverse experiences, particularly childhood abuse, predispose women to health problems later in life, possibly by altering neurobiological systems," said study author Gretchen Tietjen, MD, with the University of Toledo-Health Science Campus and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
Researchers surveyed 949 women with migraine about their history of abuse, depression and headache characteristics. Forty percent of the women had chronic headache, more than 15 headaches a month, and 72 percent reported very severe headache-related disability. Physical or sexual abuse was reported in 38 percent of the women and 12 percent reported both physical and sexual abuse in the past. These results for abuse are similar to what's been reported in the general population.
The association between migraine and depression is well established, but the mechanism is uncertain. The study found women with migraine who had major depression were twice as likely as those with migraine alone to report being sexually abused as a child. If the abuse continued past age 12, the women with migraine were five times more likely to report depression.
"The finding that a variety of somatic symptoms were also more common in people with migraine who had a history of abuse suggests that childhood maltreatment may lead to a spectrum of disorders, which have been linked to serotonin dysfunction," said Tietjen.
"Our findings contribute to the mounting data that show abuse in childhood has a powerful effect on adult health disorders and the effect intensifies when abuse lasts a long time or continues into adulthood," said Tietjen.
"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."
The study also found women with depression and migraine were twice as likely to report multiple types of abuse as a child compared to those without depression, including physical abuse, fear for life, and being in a home with an adult who abused alcohol or drugs.
"Despite the high prevalence of abuse and the increased health costs associated with it, few physicians routinely ask migraine patients about abuse history," said Tietjen. "By questioning women about their abuse history we'll be able to better identify those women with migraine at increased risk for depression".