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  • Updated 02.27.2024
  • Released 01.24.2005
  • Expires For CME 02.27.2027

Migraine: psychiatric comorbidities



Psychiatric conditions, especially mood, anxiety, and personality disorders, are common in persons suffering from migraine. These psychiatric comorbidities can alter the clinical course of migraine, its prognosis, and the quality of life of the sufferers. Therefore, diagnosis and treatment of these coexisting conditions are crucial parts of managing persons with migraine. In this article, the authors review the recent findings as well as summarize the key concept of the association between migraine and these psychiatric conditions.

Key points

• The psychiatric conditions coinciding with migraine usually fall into three main diagnostic categories: mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders.

• The onset of depression either preceding or following migraine is common in patients with migraine.

• Shared genetic vulnerability and environmental factors are the most likely explanations for migraine and comorbid depression.

Historical note and terminology

The co-occurrence of various psychiatric symptoms and migraine has long been observed. Such observation led to a hypothesis of certain psychological traits; namely depression, anxiety, and social phobia, that predisposed patients to migraine. In 1937 Wolff initiated the concept of the purported “migraine personality” (118). This personality is characterized by a constellation of obsessive-compulsive traits including perfectionism, orderliness, moralistic preoccupation, and rigidity. These entrenched, often interpersonally successful surface qualities may be understood as reaction formations against a considerable amount of anger. The other traits, such as unexpressed dependency, shyness, sensitivity to criticism, sexual inadequacy, and exploitive interpersonal relationships were also mentioned. These clinical studies concluded that unexpressed anger is what is represented in migraine (36). This concept of migraine personality has not been supported by more recent studies with better methodology. Accumulating evidence revealed that the psychiatric symptoms observed in persons with migraine are the result of coexisting disorders rather than underlying personality abnormalities.

The term “comorbidity,” introduced by Feinstein in 1970, refers to the presence of any additional coexisting ailment with a particular index disorder (28). Comorbidity of migraine is a rule rather than exception. It usually coincides with medical symptoms, medically unexplained physical symptoms, and mental conditions. Angina, hypertension, colitis ulcer, stroke, asthma, epilepsy, essential tremor, and allergies are among the physically explained conditions (71; 105; 61). For medically unexplained physical symptoms, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome were reported as associated with the presence of migraine (40; 86; 19). Overlapping symptoms with psychiatric disorders are sleep disorders, decreased energy, anhedonia, decreased concentration, and decreased libido (104). Comorbidity of migraine has also been supported statistically by multivariate technique, ie, cluster analysis. Two constellations are evident, one with medical conditions, and the other with medically unexplained syndrome and psychiatric disorders (114).

Comorbidity of migraine with mental disorders has long been noted in literature. Consistent reports on this comorbidity appear far too often to be coincidental. A population survey in the U.S. found prevalence of any mental disorder in migraineurs was 1.5 and 3.1 times as high compared to nonmigraine headache and nonheadache groups respectively (99). These psychiatric comorbidities have strong impact on an individual suffering from migraine as well as on the society. Comorbidity can alter the clinical course of migraine, its prognosis, and quality of life of the sufferers. Persons with migraine with comorbid depression or anxiety also have significantly higher medical costs than those with episodic migraine (88). Similar to adult populations, children hospitalized for migraine who had psychiatric comorbidities were more likely to require more medications, longer hospital stays, and higher cost of treatment (45).

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