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Keywords:

  • borderline personality disorder;
  • comorbidity;
  • contracts;
  • guidelines;
  • headache;
  • migraine

Background.—Physicians and psychologists who treat headache not infrequently encounter patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD patients frequently suffer from headache, and often pose special problems in treatment. Few guidelines exist for the management of the BPD headache patient.

Objectives.—To provide an overview of current concepts on BPD, including comorbidity, psychopathophysiology, and treatment. To provide an explicit framework for managing borderline behavior in patients with chronic headache.

Methods.—A literature review combined with clinical observations from the tertiary treatment of intractable headache in outpatient and inpatient settings.

Results.—BPD is found in almost 2% of the general population, with increased prevalence in patients with comorbid psychopathology and substance abuse. Severe headaches and migraine appear to be more prevalent in patients with BPD than the general population. A reported history of abuse is common, but must be interpreted with caution. Recent research has found reduced hippocampal volume in women patients with BPD; hypometabolism in the premotor, prefrontal, and anterior cingulate cortex, as well as the thalamic, caudate, and lenticular nuclei; and serotonergic dysfunction. Opioid medications may have an adverse influence on certain clinical features of BPD. Some patients show at least short-term improvement in dissociative behavior when given opioid antagonists. Treatment should combine appropriate pharmacotherapy with ongoing psychotherapy. Early identification of BPD is likely to improve the course of treatment. Treatment often requires explicit contracts, consistent limit-setting, confrontation, and communication between different treating professionals to avoid “splitting.” The recognition and management of the doctor's own countertransference is important to successful management. Noncompliant patients may need to be terminated from treatment.

Conclusions.—Specific management guidelines and the use of explicit treatment contracts can help sustain patients in treatment, reduce the risk of medication abuse, and minimize distress in the treating professional. Headaches and other symptoms in patients with BPD can be successfully managed over the course of a long-term relationship with clearly defined limits.