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Migraine and Psychiatric Comorbidity:From Theory and
Hypotheses to Clinical Application
Fred Sheftell, MD and Susan Atlas, PhD
Posted: February 2003  
Headache 2002; 42:934-944


Objective:   To review psychiatric issues that accompany migraine and means of addressing these issues.

Background:   Psychiatric factors and migraine may interact in three general ways, etiologically, psychophysiologically or biobehaviorally, and comorbidity (the two disorders coexist), which is the present focus. There are several possible mechanisms of comorbidity. The relation between two disorders may be a result of chance. One disorder can cause another disorder: Diabetes can cause diabetic neuropathy. There might be shared environmental risks: Head trauma can cause both post-traumatic epilepsy and post-traumatic headache. And there may be environmental or genetic risk factors that produce a brain state giving rise to both conditions; that is, there may be some common biology underlying both conditions. This last mechanism seems to be the most likely one underlying comorbidity of migraine and psychiatric disorders. We introduce a possible role for classical paradigms of learned helplessness in regard to psychiatric comorbid depressive and anxiety disorders and migraine.

Results:   There appears to be an association between migraine and affective disorders, particularly depression and anxiety. There are a number of formal tools for recognizing depression, but clinical evaluation should not be overlooked. Once diagnosed, depression and anxiety should be treated, both to improve the success of migraine treatment and to improve the patientís quality of life. Patients with recurring headaches are much more likely to overuse and misuse, rather than abuse, pain medications. It is important to be alert for signs that the patient may be misusing medication. Behavioral approaches can surround the support pharmacological therapy.

Conclusions:   Migraine is often comorbid with psychiatric disorders, particularly depression and anxiety. The relationship is likely based on shared mechanisms and successful treatment is possible.