People who experience migraine and other severe headaches are four times more likely to commit suicide than people who do not have a headache disorder, a new study has found.

Previous studies have shown a link between migraine and suicide, and to further understand this connection, researchers at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine studied roughly 1,200 people ages 25 to 55 over two years. Nearly 500 people had migraine, 151 experienced severe headaches and 539 had no history of severe headache.

During the study, researchers recorded 65 suicide attempts. Nearly 9% of those with migraine attempted suicide, as did 10% of those with headache pain so severe it rivaled that of migraine. In contrast, only 1% of the people in the control group attempted suicide. Among migraineurs, when researchers controlled for the presence of psychiatric disorders, those with aura and those without had similar rates of suicide attempts.

While depression and anxiety disorders increased the risk of suicide attempts, study authors found that it was headache severity that strongly predicted such attempts. On a pain scale of one to 10, the risk of suicide attempt increased by 17% with each one-point rise. In all, the researchers wrote, an increase in the pain intensity score of one standard deviation unit raised the risk of suicide by 79%, even when researchers adjusted for sex and psychiatric disorders.

Study authors, led by Naomi Breslau, PhD, note that these findings are consistent with other studies on pain and suicide, including the 1999 Large Health Survey of Veterans. That study found veterans with severe pain were 33% more likely to commit suicide than were veterans with lower levels of reported pain.

Breslau and her colleagues believe it is possible that brain chemicals, including serotonin, may play an important role here, as previous research has linked them to both severe headache and suicide. Further study is indicated.

“Future research that focuses on biological bases that might link severe pain (rather than migraine headache specifically) to suicidal behavior would be illuminating,” they wrote.

p>Most importantly, Breslau said, people who suffer from extreme headache or migraine should seek help either from their healthcare provider or a clinic that specializes in treating pain. Several approaches exist for treating head pain and may provide significant pain relief.

This study was published online March 9 in Headache.

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