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Headaches and Panic Disorder

Troubling Headaches and Panic Disorder

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Updated April 09, 2014

Headaches are a very common complaint. In fact, frequent headaches are the third most common reason people see their primary care doctor. If you have panic disorder, you, too, may be suffering from this common ailment. At the very least, frequent headaches are annoying. At their worst, they can be disabling.

Prevalence of Headaches Co-Occurring With Panic Disorder

About 50% to 66% of women and 35% to 40% of men who have panic disorder suffer from frequent headaches. And, people with panic disorder are up to seven times more likely to suffer the most severe of all headaches: a migraine. One study showed that two out of three patients with panic disorder met the criteria for problem headaches, with migraine being the most prevalent form.

The main symptom of a migraine is severe pain on one or both sides of the head. Sometimes this pain is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Before a migraine, some people experience certain vision changes, such as, light sensitivity, tunnel vision, blind spots or flashing lights. These visual disturbances, called “auras,” let the person know a migraine is coming. Migraines can last 6 hours to a few days and can occur several times a week.

The Frequency and Intensity of Headaches

Migraine is not the only type of headache that has been associated with Panic disorder. Severe headaches that do not constitute migraine are also associated. Some research suggests that headache pain in those with panic disorder is more intense than in those without panic. It has also been shown that people with panic disorder have an increased frequency of headaches when compared to their non-panic counterparts. There is some evidence to suggest that the PD-headache connection may have genetic links or arise out of certain common environmental triggers.

Headache Symptoms May Increase the Likelihood of Disability

There is some evidence that disability is more common in those with panic disorder and headache symptoms than in those with PD alone. Obviously, it would be difficult to function fully in your daily activities when your head is frequently throbbing with pain. There, also, appears to be some correlation between the duration of panic disorder and the presence of headache symptoms. This may mean that some forms of panic disorder with headache are more chronic and more severe than PD alone.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you have panic disorder with frequent headaches, it is important to talk to your doctor. Pain is your body’s warning system, and, although rare, frequent headaches may signal a more serious problem. It is important to talk to your doctor about what treatment options are available to treat both your panic disorder and your headache symptoms.

Sources:

Breslau PhD, Naomi, Schultz PhD, Lonni R., Stewart PhD, William F., Lipton MD, Richard B., and Welch MD, K. Michael. “Headache Types and Panic Disorder: Directionality and specificity.” American Academy of Neurology 2001 56:350-354.

Marazziti, D; Toni, C; Pedri, S; Bonuccelli U; Pavese, N; Lucetti, C; Nuti, A; Muratorio, A; and Cassano, GB. “Prevalence of Headache Syndromes in Panic Disorder.” Int Clin Psychopharmacol 14 July 1999 4:247-51.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 02 July 2008. “Headache: Hope Through Research". NIH Publication No. 02-158.

Rosenbaum MD, Jerrold F. and Pollack, Mark H. “Panic Disorder and Its Treatment.” 1998 New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

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