For those living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), managing the wide array of symptoms can be challenging. Most people with ADHD experience symptoms such as difficulty focusing, restlessness, and impulsiveness. However, while these remain some of the most common symptoms, there is also a connection between migraines and ADHD as well. In this article, we’ll take a look at why these two conditions seem to co-occur together, as well as how you can manage the symptoms of migraine attacks alongside those of ADHD.
Do Migraines and ADHD Co-Occur?
Migraines aren’t your average, everyday headache. They cause intense, throbbing pain that can last for much longer than a typical headache. Some people who experience frequent migraines have attacks that last for hours, while others have migraine attacks that last for days without end. Migraines can also come and go, often referred to as a “flare-up,” which may cause extended periods without a migraine, only to have several seemingly out of the blue.
Although anyone can have migraines, research shows that there is a connection between migraines and ADHD. Several theories have been put forth as to why people diagnosed with ADHD appear more likely to suffer from migraines than others. This trend appears to be more common among women with ADHD, and increases as a person ages.
The fact that migraines appear to be more common among women with ADHD has led some researchers to point toward hormonal factors as a likely cause. One 2011 study found that about one-third of women with ADHD suffered from frequent migraine attacks, compared with just 22.5 percent of men.
Other theories point toward the connection between migraines and mood and anxiety disorders as a possible explanation. Migraines have been known to cause symptoms such as increased distractibility and irritability, especially in younger adults and children with shorter attention spans.
One researcher, Marco Antonio Arruda, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric neurologist at Sao Paulo University in Brazil, suggests that genetic factors may play a role in the development of migraines in children with ADHD. He claims that stress and other stimuli may affect the neurotransmitters, including those that release 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.”
Are Migraines a Symptom of ADHD?
While current research suggests that an ADHD diagnosis increases the likelihood of experiencing migraines, these types of headaches are not typically symptoms of ADHD.
The most common symptoms of ADHD are inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Some people with ADHD report mood disorders like anxiety or depression alongside attention issues.
While migraines may not be a common symptom of ADHD, they can sometimes co-occur alongside conditions like anxiety, depression, and other common mood disorders observed in people with ADHD. This may explain why some people with ADHD also experience chronic migraine attacks.
What’s the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache?
Some people who have ADHD will experience headaches as a side effect of their medications. While any headache can cause discomfort, for many, these are mild and will typically subside as their body adjusts to the medication. If these headaches persist, however, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider. Medication-related headaches are typically not considered to be migraines, as they are generally milder and easily manageable through actions such as eating before taking medications.
Unlike headaches, migraines are a neurological disorder with symptoms that interfere with daily life. Most people with migraines have attacks multiple times a month, with some having attacks much more frequently. For most, migraines tend to occur on one side of the head, and cause frequent symptoms which may include:
- Extreme sensitivity to light, touch, sound, or smell
- Tingling or numbness in the extremities or face
- Visual disturbances
What You Can Do
Many people who live with chronic pain quickly learn about their triggers. Migraine triggers are specific events, conditions, or other factors that bring on a migraine. Triggers often vary from person to person, and what triggers a migraine for one person may not be for another. If you are living with ADHD, and you struggle with chronic migraines, you’ll want to avoid these triggers whenever possible.
While avoiding triggers is oftentimes easier said than done, it’s important to take the steps necessary to prevent migraines in the first place. Some common migraine triggers include:
- Strong smells
- Bright lights
- Changes in the weather, including temperature or humidity
- Overuse of pain medications
- Changes in sleep pattern
- Skipping meals or dehydration
- Certain foods, such as artificial sweeteners, fermented foods, or caffeine
Although migraines can co-occur with ADHD, the exact trigger of that attack can differ from person to person. This means that understanding the conditions and situations that may cause your migraines is the most important step in treating migraine headaches. Once you’ve identified these triggers, you can take preventative measures to ensure your migraines stay at bay.
One step you can take is to keep a migraine journal or diary. A migraine journal involves identifying patterns and narrowing down specific triggers that can help you understand what is causing your migraines. This journal may include:
- The specific date, time, and location of your migraine
- The severity of your migraines
- Any other symptoms that accompany your migraines
- Any other details that may be helpful, such as sleep patterns, eating habits, and medications
So, what’s the bottom line? Migraines and ADHD are two separate conditions, each with its own unique challenges. Migraines can cause intense, debilitating throbbing headaches, whereas ADHD causes more cognitive symptoms such as impulsiveness and difficulty with focus.
Although migraines may not be a typical symptom of ADHD, they frequently occur alongside one another. The exact link between migraines and ADHD is unknown, so you’ll need to work with your doctor to better understand your unique triggers, causes, and treatments.
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