Terror Attack Survivors At Higher Risk Of Frequent Headaches, Migraines

MINNEAPOLIS — Exposure to terror attacks may leave survivors with frequent painful headaches, including migraines, in the months after the incident, a new study finds.

The research, led by Synne Øien Stensland of the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies in Oslo, focused on the survivors of the 2011 shooting at a youth summer camp on Utøya Island that left 69 people dead and 33 severely wounded.

Woman with headache
The study found that the survivors of the terror attack were four times as likely to suffer from migraines and three times more likely to suffer from tension headaches.

“We know a lot about the psychological effects of terror attacks and other extreme violence on survivors, but we don’t know much about the physical effects of these violent incidents,” said Stensland in a release by the American Academy of Neurology. “Our study shows that a single highly stressful event may lead to ongoing suffering with frequent migraines and other headaches, which can be disabling when they keep people from their work or school activities.”

Overall, 213 of the 358 teenage survivors of the shooting participated in Stensland’s study. The average age of the participants was 18, with 6 percent of the survivors having suffered severe injuries from the attack. Participants were interviewed about any headaches they experienced and the frequency within four to five months after the attack. Their responses were compared with 1,704 other young people who hadn’t been exposed to terror.

The study found that the survivors of the terror attack were four times as likely to suffer from migraines and three times more likely to suffer from tension headaches. After adjusting for other factors that might trigger headaches, such as previous injuries, gender, prior exposure to physical or sexual abuse, and psychological distress, the results held steady.

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“We suspected that headaches would increase for terror survivors, and the increase was over and above what might be expected based on psychological distress and other risk factors,” says Stensland. “This suggests that we may need to figure out ways to help people right after events like terror attacks to help reduce the potential of frequent and disabling headaches. In many cases with severe headaches, treatments can be most helpful early on before the condition becomes chronic.”

The full study was published January 9, 2018 in the journal Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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