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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

International study links headache with childhood problems

Embargoed until 02 February 2009

Children who are abused or grow up in a difficult family environment are more likely to suffer severe headaches when they are adults, new research suggests.

The research, published in the February issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, studied more than 18,000 people living in ten different countries. Data was collected from surveys carried out in the USA, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Columbia and Mexico. 11.3% of the 18,303 participants reported having frequent or severe headaches. More than half of these headaches first occurred between the ages of 21 and 40.

Researchers found that children who had been physically or sexually abused were more likely to have frequent or severe headaches as adults. Adult-onset headache was also more common in those whose parents had had a mental health or drug problem, or whose family displayed violent or criminal behaviour.

The relationship between childhood family adversities and headache was found to be linear. In other words, the risk of headache was higher in people who had experienced three or more types of family adversity than those with one or two. Not all types of family adversities were strongly associated with headache, however. Death of a parent, divorce, neglect and financial problems were not significantly related.

The researchers also looked for a link between childhood mental disorders and headache in later life. They found that people who experienced depression and anxiety disorders during childhood were again more likely to develop adult-onset headache. This association was independent of childhood family adversities.

The aetiology, or cause, of headache is still unclear. However, previous research has shown that people who have experienced childhood family adversities may have weak coping strategies. Neuroimaging studies suggest that the brain areas activated during emotional distress are also activated during physical pain.

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers concluded: “Our results show that childhood family adversities may predispose individuals to adult onset headache.”

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