Terrorism and headaches

Survivors of terrorist attacks are four times more likely to suffer from migraines and three times more likely to suffer from tension-type headaches, according to a study just published in Neurology. The researchers evaluated 213 of 358 adolescent survivors of the 2011 massacre at a summer camp in Norway that resulted in deaths of 69 people. These survivors were compared to over 1,700 adolescents of the same sex and age who were not exposed to terrorism. The survivors were not only much more likely to suffer from migraines and tension-type headaches, but were also much more likely to have daily or weekly attacks.

Many previous studies have shown that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are strong risk factors for the development of migraines and chronic pain in many previous studies. Having a family history of migraines further increases this risk, as does head trauma, and having other painful or psychological disorders. Headache is also one of the first symptoms reported by adolescent girls and women who were raped.

The authors of the current report cite evidence that “Childhood maltreatment during periods of high developmental plasticity seems to trigger modifications in genetic expression, neural circuits, immunologic functioning, and related physiologic stress responses. It is plausible that exposure to interpersonal violence could induce functional, neuroendoimmunologic alterations, affecting central sensitization and pain modulation and perception. Central sensitization, expressed as hypersensitivity to visual, auditory, olfactory, and somatosensory stimuli, has long been thought to play a key role in the pathogenesis and chronification of migraine.”

It is likely that early intervention after a traumatic event will result not only in better psychological outcomes, but also in fewer and milder headaches. One such intervention is cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, there are several different types of such therapy and a study just published in JAMA Psychiatry compared 12 sessions of cognitive processing therapy (CPT) with 5 sessions of written exposure therapy (WET) for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. WET was shown to be at least as good as CPT with fewer treatment sessions required. This makes WET more efficient and affordable and patients are more likely to complete it.

My previous blog posts mention online self-administered courses of cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD, insomnia, chronic pain, and other conditions. The site is ThisWayUp.org.au and the researchers behind it have published scientific data indicating that their approach is very effective. It is also very inexpensive – some courses are free and some cost about $50.

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