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Childhood trauma could triple the risk of headache disorders

Childhood trauma, a pervasive issue worldwide, may have greater ramifications than previously believed. 

A recent meta-analysis published by the American Academy of Neurology reveals a potential connection between traumatic events experienced in childhood, such as abuse or household dysfunction, and the onset of headache disorders in adulthood. 

Clear risk factors

While the research does not provide evidence of a direct causal relationship, it clearly highlights an association.

“Traumatic events in childhood can have serious health implications later in life,” said study author Dr. Catherine Kreatsoulas of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

“Our meta-analysis confirms that childhood traumatic events are important risk factors for headache disorders in adulthood, including migraine, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and chronic or severe headaches. This is a risk factor that we cannot ignore.”

Focus of the study 

The team analyzed the results of 28 studies across 19 countries involving over 150,000 participants. 

Overall, 31 percent (48,625 individuals) recounted at least a single traumatic event from their childhood. Meanwhile, 16 percent (24,956 individuals) were diagnosed with primary headaches. 

Results of the analysis

The analysis showed that, among the group with traumatic childhood events, 26 percent had a primary headache disorder. By contrast, only 12 percent from the non-traumatic group suffered from a headache disorder.

When the researchers took a closer look at the data, they found that individuals with one or more childhood traumas were almost 50 percent more prone to headache disorders than individuals without such traumas. 

Traumatic events 

Furthermore, the risk escalated with the number of traumatic events: a single traumatic event resulted in a 24 percent increased risk, while experiencing four or more traumatic events doubled the likelihood of a headache disorder.

To refine their understanding, the team placed traumatic events into two categories: threat traumas (like abuse or witnessing violence) and deprivation traumas (such as neglect or living with a chronically ill family member). 

Threat traumas increased the headache risk by 46 percent and deprivation traumas by 35 percent. Physical and sexual abuse escalated the risk of headache disorders by 60 percent. In the deprivation category, childhood neglect almost tripled the risk.

Study implications 

“This meta-analysis highlights that childhood traumatic events categorized as threat or deprivation traumas are important and independent risk factors for headache disorders in adulthood,” said Dr. Kreatsoulas. 

“Identifying the specific types of childhood experiences may help guide prevention and treatment strategies for one of the leading disabling disorders worldwide. A comprehensive public health plan and clinical intervention strategies are needed to address these underlying traumatic childhood events.”

“It is important to note that the true estimate of the association is likely higher due to the sensitive nature of reporting childhood traumatic events.”

More about headache disorders

Headache disorders, among the most common disorders of the nervous system, are pervasive conditions that can affect individuals across all age groups. Here are some of the most common types of headache disorders:


Characterized by throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head, accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting.

Tension headaches

Often described as a tight band around the head, they are typically a result of muscle tension or stress.

Cluster headaches

These headaches are extremely painful, and occur in cyclical patterns or clusters. They are one of the most severe types of headache disorders.

The research is published in the journal Neurology.

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