When many people think about depression, they think of it as a purely psychological issue. While most of the symptoms of depression are psychological, with intense sadness and lack of motivation being the two most prominent, not all symptoms are. Most people with depression also experience a decrease in appetite, and a measurable decrease in energy such as being lethargic or sleeping a lot more. What may not be common knowledge, however, is that depression is closely linked to a health issue that up until several years ago has been considered by many health professionals to be predominantly physical: recurring migraines.
Migraines are types of headaches characterized by throbbing or pounding pain, as well as heightened sensitivity to sensory input. This mostly pertains to light and noise, but sometimes smell will affect sufferers, and less frequently touch will affect them. Migraines can also cause nausea and sometimes vomiting or fever. Like depression, another common symptom is loss of appetite.
But, what do these headaches have to do with depression? According to neuroscientist Dr. Tobias Kurth, migraines are “a potential risk factor for depression.” Dr. Kurth conducted a study that suggested that women with recurring migraines are four times more likely to develop depression in their lifetime than women without migraines. Dr. Joel Saper, another prominent neuroscientist, agreed with Dr. Kurth, stating that migraines and depression “can intermingle with each other, and they can masquerade [as] each other. And having one makes the other one worse.”
Theoretically, the fact that migraines worsen depression doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched. After all, being forced to endure excruciating pain sometimes for as long as three days would be exhausting for anyone. For people already struggling to get through the day emotionally intact, migraines could feel overwhelming.
How does the medical community explain why depression worsens migraines? Tricia Stream, a woman who had migraines from age fifteen, said that her migraines were most commonly triggered by stress. This offers one possible explanation, as depression, along with anxiety disorders which often appear concurrently, lowers the stress threshold for everyday challenges. A person who struggles to get out of bed might become more upset over being five minutes late for a meeting at work than a person who has a generally stable, positive mood.
There is also a chance that the connection between migraines and depression may not be causal; one might not engender the other, but rather they might each stem from the same cause. According to Dr. Gisela Turwindt, there is “a genetic predisposition by people with migraines to be depressed.” She and her colleagues conducted a study where they isolated a group of people descended from 22 related couples. The study found that migraine sufferers who were genetically related were almost one and a half times as likely to also have depression as compared to two unrelated people.
By analyzing DNA commonalities, a second study showed that the dual occurrence of migraines and depression was not chance, but very clearly genetic in nature. A third study demonstrated that twins are significantly more likely to have both conditions than two unrelated people, supporting the findings of the two previous studies.
There is good news for people with both depression and migraines, however. Medication that treats one issue often treats the other as well. In Tricia Stream’s case, this proved to be true as the antidepressant she was prescribed made her migraines less frequent and more bearable. Doctor Saper remarked that Mrs. Stream’s case was not isolated; he said, “sometimes we can treat both [migraines and depression] with the same medication.”
The full relationship between migraines and depression is still unclear, although a number of carefully conducted studies provide evidence to suggest that the connection is genetic. Either way, there is hope as treatments exist to affect both conditions.