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Study: Migraines Can Lead to Depression in Women Later in Life

By HERWriter
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Physical health issues can coincide with mental health issues sometimes, and a new study demonstrates this connection. Researchers found a link between migraines in women and a later development of depression.

The study looked at 36,154 women, and researchers tracked the participants for around 14 years, according to a press release. Out of the 6,456 women who had a migraine in the past or present, over half (3,971) ended up suffering from depression around 14 years later. Researchers concluded that “women with any history of migraine were about 40 percent more likely to develop depression than women without a history of migraine,” according to the release.

Experts share their opinions on the study, and why migraines might lead to depression later in life for women.

Dr. Daniel Kantor, president of the Florida Society of Neurology and medical director of Neurologique, an organization focused on patient-centered care, research and education, said in an email that there are multiple reasons that could explain the results of the study.

“Women with [migraines] are more likely to utilize medical resources, and therefore they are more likely to seek care, and their physicians may notice the signs of depression (and the women without migraines weren't being seen in these physician offices),” Kantor said.

In addition, he added that there could be a genetic link between depression and migraines. Then there is also the consideration that depression could lead to migraines, instead of migraines being the actual cause of depression.

“Migraines can be very serious and can lead to pain, isolation and sadness,” Kantor said. “Sometimes they may lead to depression as well. Medications used for migraines may contribute to depression (although usually the same medications that treat depression also treat migraines).”

He said that the causes of both migraines and depression can be similar, so it makes sense there would be an association.

“We know that both depression and migraines involve altered neurotransmitters (chemical [in] the brain) - there could be one underlying problem that leads to both,” Kantor said.

For people who are suffering from depression and migraines, he suggests seeing a neurologist.

“A neurologist (especially a board-certified Headache Medicine doctor) can usually help address both the migraines and the depression,” Kantor said. “Many of the same treatments are used for both, such as alternative medications, regular pharmaceuticals and even transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).”

He said there are some solutions to help prevent migraines.

“This can be done by a variety of ways: breathing exercises, visual imagery, alternative medications, pharmaceuticals, trigger point injections, Botox injections and even occipital nerve stimulators,” Kantor said.

Dorothy A. Martin-Neville, a psychotherapist, international speaker and author, said in an email that there are a few possible reasons why migraines could eventually lead to depression in women.

“Experience shows that it is when women believe that if they could analyze and understand any and all areas of their life that they could then control them,” Martin-Neville said. “She has a massive tendency to over-think everything and as a result develops migraines with the excess stress placed on her brain function.”

Women can also feel like they are losing control over certain areas of their lives, she said.

“For all of us we are depressed to the extent that we believe we are powerless,” Martin-Neville said. “As women age they are forced to realize that they have much less control over their lives, their bodies and those in their lives than they often want to accept. Over-thinking will not resolve those issues.”

She doesn't think depression can necessarily cause migraines.

“Not all people who feel powerless have a tendency to over-think so no it does not directly cause migraines,” Martin-Neville said. “Migraines can result in frustration as easily as depression; it depends on the personality style.”

She has experience treating patients with migraines and suggests doing a certain exercise to help relieve migraines.

“For migraines in the distant past they were told to go into dark rooms, pull down the shades and stop thinking. The thought was that they would eliminate all intellectual stimulation that way and cause the brain to relax,” Martin-Neville said. “To eliminate migraines I have my patients feel, not think, what it [feels like] on their feet to dip their toes in water or to have their feet rubbed. I have them bring their focus to their toes and amazingly each time they can do that, to the extent that they can do that, their headaches are relieved. Literally, I am simply having them bring all that energy out of their head and down to their feet. It is so basic and yet so powerful.”

For people with both depression and migraines, she treats the depression by focusing on power issues.

“I work with them to see in what area of their life they feel powerless and then I work with them to see that the opposite is usually true,” Martin-Neville said.

She has a technique for helping to prevent depression for women with migraines as well.

“I would first provide them with the tools to see that life cannot be controlled simply by understanding it,” Martin-Neville said. “I would then help them focus on what it is they want to do with their life, what feeds their passion and helps them reclaim their dreams, then I would simply let them live this life, not survive it.”

Kim Olver, a licensed clinical professional counselor and the executive director of the William Glasser Institute, said in an email that depression and migraines are the result of an unhappy relationship with the self. This concept is part of reality therapy and choice theory.

“Choice Theory tells us that everything we do is purposeful, including headaches and depressing,” Olver said. “When a person is unhappy, it is usually because of an unhappy relationship and that relationship can be the one we have with ourselves.”

This theory tends to contradict what most people have been told about the causes of depression and migraines.

“The typical thought is that things happen outside of us that cause our depression or that chemicals in our brains become imbalanced and create depression in our bodies,” Olver said. “As an alternative to this victimizing way of thinking, CT posits that people actually choose depression, headaches and other behaviors, although subconsciously, to get back in control of their lives or the relationship that isn't working for them. Intuitively, this doesn't seem to make sense on the surface but when you examine it closer, it makes perfect sense.”

This concept can explain the differences in why some people get depression and migraines and others don’t.

“If outside events cause depression, then how can we explain that one person can have the same stressor and not become depressed?” Olver said. “It's resiliency and resiliency is nothing more than a person who has discovered to focus their energy on what they have control over – themselves - and not everyone else around them.”

She adds that this concept does not place blame on the person who is suffering from depression and migraines.

“This is not about blaming the victim for choices over which they were unaware. It's about empowering the person to understand there are better choices,” Olver said. “Depression doesn't cause migraines and migraines don't cause depression. It's unhappiness, probably a relationship, that causes both. That's the connection.”

American Academy of Neurology. Migraine linked to increased risk of depression in women. Web. Feb. 29, 2012. http://www.aan.com/press/index.cfm?fuseaction=release.view&release=1033

Kantor, Daniel. Email interview. Feb. 28, 2012.
Martin-Neville, Dorothy A. About Us. Web. March 1, 2012. http://www.drdorothyct.com/about.cfm
Martin-Neville, Dorothy A. Email interview. Feb. 28, 2012.
Olver, Kim. Email interview. Feb. 29, 2012.

Reviewed March 1, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.