One of the lingering aftereffects of childhood trauma may be painful headaches as an adult, research published Wednesday suggests. The study, a meta-analysis of existing evidence, found that people who reported traumatic events in their childhood were noticeably more likely to report headache disorders than those without such a history.
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Childhood trauma is tragically common. At least one in seven children in the U.S. have experienced abuse or neglect in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about 64% of American adults today report experiencing at least one potentially traumatic event in their childhood, such as witnessing violence or losing someone in the family to suicide.
Trauma can have plenty of immediate health impacts on children. But it’s also known that it can raise people’s later risk of many other problems, including substance use disorders, delayed learning, and sexually transmitted infections. The authors of this study, published Wednesday in Neurology, wanted to know if this increased risk was true for headaches as well.
“Given that primary headaches are among the leading causes of disability worldwide, and the high global prevalence of childhood traumas, we wanted to investigate if there was a link,” study author Catherine Kreatsoulas, a health policy researcher at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Gizmodo in an email.
Other research has suggested as much, and the study authors themselves have visited headache clinics where patients have frequently reported a history of childhood trauma. But according to Kreatsoulas, the data tying headaches to childhood trauma hasn’t been systematically collected and studied across different countries.
Kreatsoulas and her team analyzed data from 28 relevant studies, which collectively involved 154,739 participants in 19 countries. 31% of people overall reported at least one traumatic childhood event in their lifetime, while 16% had been diagnosed with primary headaches, or headaches not attributed to any other underlying disease. Overall, people with a history of childhood trauma were 48% more likely to be later diagnosed with primary headaches than those with no trauma history—an increased risk that was even higher for people who experienced multiple traumatic events in childhood.
The researchers also examined how different types of trauma might affect headache risk. Threat traumas (such as abuse or violence) were linked to a 46% increase in headaches, for instance, while deprivation traumas (such as neglect or the death of a parent) were linked to a 35% increase in headaches.
The findings can only show a correlation between headaches and childhood trauma, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. But it’s the largest meta-analysis of its kind, the team says. And the fact that people with a greater traumatic history tended to experience headaches more often than others bolsters the case that there is a genuine causal connection here (in medicine, this pattern is known as the dose-response effect).
“It is important to note our findings reflect a conservative estimate, as the true estimate of the association is likely higher due to the sensitive nature of reporting childhood traumatic events,” Kreatsoulas said.
The team plans to continue studying how childhood trauma might affect the risk of other health problems, including chronic and autoimmune diseases. And they say that future studies should look into other aspects of the link between headaches and trauma, such as how the timing of trauma could influence this risk. They also hope their research can improve the care of headache patients, since there are treatments that can help people better cope with their trauma and perhaps lessen any related symptoms.
Neurologists and primary care physicians who treat primary headaches in adults might want to routinely screen patients for childhood trauma and educate them on the connection between childhood traumas and headaches, for instance, Kreatsoulas said.
“We also suggest improving collaboration between neurology practices and psychiatry and psychology practices to address childhood traumas from multiple points of care,” she added.