Published:  2007-06-01

Is stress a trigger factor for migraine?

Authors:  G. G. Schoonman, D. J. Evers, B. E. Ballieux, E. J. de Geus, E. R. de Kloet, G. M. Terwindt, J. G. van Dijk, M. D. Ferrari

Tags:  Cortisol, Daily Stress Inventory, Heart rate, Migraine, Psychosocial stress, Trigger factor

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Although mental stress is commonly considered to be an important trigger factor for migraine, experimental evidence for this belief is yet lacking.
To study the temporal relationship between changes in stress-related parameters (both subjective and objective) and the onset of a migraine attack.
This was a prospective, ambulatory study in 17 migraine patients. We assessed changes in perceived stress and objective biological measures for stress (saliva cortisol, heart rate average [HRA], and heart rate variability [low-frequency power and high-frequency power]) over 4 days prior to the onset of spontaneous migraine attacks. Analyses were repeated for subgroups of patients according to whether or not they felt their migraine to be triggered by stress.
There were no significant temporal changes over time for the whole group in perceived stress (p=0.50), morning cortisol (p=0.73), evening cortisol (p=0.55), HRA (p=0.83), low-frequency power (p=0.99) and high-frequency power (p=0.97) prior to or during an attack. Post hoc analysis of the subgroup of nine stress-sensitive patients who felt that >2/3 of their migraine attacks were triggered by psychosocial stress, revealed an increase for perceived stress (p=0.04) but no changes in objective stress response measures. At baseline, this group also showed higher scores on the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (p=0.003) and the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale (p=0.001) compared to non-stress-sensitive patients.
Although stress-sensitive patients, in contrast to non-stress-sensitive patients, may perceive more stress in the days before an impending migraine attack, we failed to detect any objective evidence for a biological stress response before or during migraine attacks.