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The Connection Between ADHD and Migraines

 ADHD Weekly, August 8, 2019


When the familiar symptoms—headache, nausea, and distorted vision—set in, migraine sufferers just want them to stop. But did you know that having ADHD makes you more likely to experience migraine headaches?

These headaches frequently co-occur in many children, adolescents, and adults affected by ADHD. One study found that men with ADHD were more than twice as likely to have migraines as other men. Another study found the severity of ADHD symptoms in children is in direct proportion to the frequency of migraine headaches.

Why do migraines and ADHD co-occur?

Researchers have proposed several theories about why people diagnosed with ADHD seem more likely to have migraine headaches. Women tend to experience migraines more often than men, which leads some researchers to point toward hormonal fluctuations. Migraines may also be associated with mood and anxiety disorders. Other researchers suggest the headaches may cause more distractibility and irritation, especially in children with a short attention span, or that a separate disorder underlies both conditions.

Marco Antônio Arruda, MD, PhD, a pediatric neurologist at São Paulo University in Brazil, suggests that genetic factors may be at play, with stress and other stimuli affecting neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

“When attending children with headaches,” says Dr. Arruda, “clinicians should explore school performance, absenteeism, and mental health— especially symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity—in order to make a correct diagnosis.”

Children who have ADHD and experience migraines tend to have greater learning and social challenges than their peers. Early diagnosis and treatment may improve school performance and the child’s wellbeing.

Headaches versus migraines

Some people may experience headaches when trying a new ADHD medication. For most, these are mild and will soon cease as your body adjusts to the medication. If headaches continue, it’s important to discuss them with your prescriber. Medication-related headaches typically are not migraines and are usually manageable through actions such as having something small to eat just before or when taking your medication.

Migraines, in contrast, are a neurological disorder with symptoms that interfere with daily life. Most people affected by migraines have attacks once or twice a month, although some have many more. Migraines tend to occur on one side of the head, and frequently have one or more symptoms:

  • visual disturbances
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch, and smell
  • tingling or numbness in the extremities or face

What you can do

Many people who have migraines learn about their triggers, which are events or conditions that bring on these headaches. Triggers can vary for each person, and something that triggers a migraine for one person doesn’t always act as a trigger for another. You may want to avoid, where possible, some of these common triggers:

  • A change in sleep patterns, skipping meals or fasting, dehydration, alcohol, overexertion, exercise, stress.
  • Strong smells, fluorescent or bright lights, smoke, pollution, altitude, air pressure changes like those that occur in an airplane, motion sickness.
  • Changes in weather, including temperature or barometric pressure, humidity (both high and low), bright sunlight.
  • Overuse of pain medications (both over-the-counter and prescription), or side effects from a medication.
  • Specific foods may become triggers when combined with other triggers. Common food triggers include artificial sweeteners, MSG, nitrates, fermented foods, aged cheeses, freshly baked yeast bread, alcohol, and caffeine.

List of triggers from the Migraine Research Foundation

Getting help for migraines

ADHD and migraines co-occur and can affect the symptoms of both conditions. It is important to work with qualified and licensed healthcare providers who can conduct an evaluation for both conditions. Keep in mind that more than one professional may be needed for these evaluations.

For an evaluation of migraines, a certified headache specialist or comprehensive headache center that uses a collaborative approach to treatment can work with your healthcare provider who is focused on ADHD. This will allow the professionals to coordinate a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

For more information, and to find healthcare professionals:

Join the discussion: Do you or your child experience migraines?