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Trauma Exposure versus Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Relative Associations With Migraine


  • Conflicts of Interest: None.
  • Financial Support: None.

Address all correspondence to T.A. Smitherman, Department of Psychology, University of Mississippi, 207 Peabody, Oxford, MS 38677, USA, email:



Recent research has uncovered associations between migraine and experiencing traumatic events, the latter of which in some cases eventuates in the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, existing studies have not attempted to explore the relative associations with migraine between experiencing trauma and suffering from PTSD.


The aim of this cross-sectional study was to assess the predictive utility of trauma exposure vs PTSD in predicting migraine status and headache frequency, severity, and disability.


One thousand fifty-one young adults (mean age = 18.9 years [SD = 1.4]; 63.1% female; 20.6% non-Caucasian) without secondary causes of headache provided data from measures of headache symptomatology and disability, trauma and PTSD symptomatology, and depression and anxiety. Three hundred met diagnostic criteria for migraine and were compared on trauma exposure and PTSD prevalence with 751 participants without migraine.


Seven hundred twenty-eight participants (69.3%) reported experiencing at least 1 traumatic event consistent with Criterion A for PTSD, of whom 184 also met diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Migraineurs were almost twice as likely as controls to meet criteria for PTSD (25.7% vs 14.2%, P < .0001) and reported a higher number of traumatic event types that happened to them personally (3.0 vs 2.4, P < .0001). However, experiencing a Criterion A event only was not a significant predictor of migraine either alone (odds ratio [OR] = 1.17, P = nonsignificant) or after adjustment for covariates. By comparison, the OR of migraine for those with a PTSD diagnosis (vs no Criterion A event) was 2.30 (P < .0001), which remained significant after controlling for relevant covariates (OR = 1.75, P = .009). When using continuous variables of trauma and PTSD symptomatology, PTSD was again most strongly associated with migraine. Numerous sensitivity analyses confirmed these findings. PTSD symptomatology, but not the number of traumas, was modestly but significantly associated with headache frequency, severity, and disability in univariate analyses.


Consistently across analyses, PTSD was a robust predictor of migraine, whereas trauma exposure alone was not. These data support the notion that it is not exposure to trauma itself that is principally associated with migraine, but rather the development and severity of PTSD symptoms resulting from such exposure.