Chronic Headache Pain Linked to Suicide Attempts

Tara Haelle

June 15, 2021

Veterans with chronic headaches had a greater risk of a suicide attempt than that of veterans suffering from chronic neck or back pain, according to findings presented at the American Headache Society's 2021 annual meeting. Risk rose even more in those with chronic headache pain and a comorbid traumatic brain injury (TBI).

"In addition, as expected, veterans with psychiatric conditions have increased risk of suicide attempt with the exception of anxiety in men and dependent personality in women," said X. Michelle Androulakis, MD, associate professor of neurology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

"Surprising" Findings

"These findings are eye-opening but not surprising since we know that veterans in general and people with chronic pain are at higher risk for suicidal behaviors compared with their civilian counterparts," said Amy. S Grinberg, PhD, a clinical health psychologist who practices in New Rochelle, N.Y. Grinberg, who also works at VA Connecticut Healthcare System, was not involved in the study.

"It is, however, very interesting that suicidal attempts are higher in veterans with chronic headache compared with other chronic pain disorders, such as chronic neck and back pain," Grinberg said. "This really highlights the impact of living with a chronic headache disorder, and emphasizes the continued efforts that should be put into place to support veterans with chronic headache, including improved access to a range of treatment options and continued funding for future research."

Veterans With Chronic Pain

The researchers retrospectively analyzed Veterans Health Administration electronic health records of 3,252,704 veterans, predominantly male and White, who had been diagnosed with any type of chronic pain from 2000 to 2010.

The researchers looked at overall headache diagnoses instead of specific diagnoses, such as migraine, cluster headache, or posttraumatic headache, since specific headache disorders are frequently underdiagnosed.

The population included 14.7% of patients with chronic headache, 14.9% with chronic neck pain, 59.2% with chronic back pain, and 60.2% with other types of chronic pain, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pain, and reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

Traumatic brain injury occurred in 11.2% of those with chronic headaches, compared with 6.8% of those with chronic back pain, 8.5% of those with chronic neck pain, and 5.9% of those with other chronic pain.

More than half (56.4%) of those with chronic headache had depression, the most common comorbidity in the group, followed by 31.5% who had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 21.8% who had adjustment disorder. Other rates of psychiatric disorders were all below 10%. Prevalence of depression occurred in 44.5% of those with back pain, 52.4% of those with neck pain, and 39% of those with other chronic pain. PTSD rates were also lower in those with back (22%), neck (27.2%), or other chronic pain (18.6%).

"Interestingly, this study found that those veterans with a history of traumatic brain injury and psychiatric comorbidities, such as depression, are at greater risk for suicide attempts," said Grinberg. "The good news is that these are modifiable risk factors, and evidence-based treatments for depression, PTSD, and headache, for example, are widely disseminated within the VA."

The majority of headache diagnoses were not otherwise specified (80.1%). Half (50.2%) were migraine headaches while rates were much lower for tension-type headache (8.8%), trigeminal neuralgia (5%), cluster headache (0.8%), and posttraumatic headache (0.7%).

The highest incidence of suicide attempts occurred among those with chronic headaches, ranging from 329 to 396 per 100,000, aside from a peak of 482 per 100,000 in 2005. Suicide attempts peaked among all patients with chronic pain in 2005, "likely related to the deployment and policy changes in the Veterans Health Administration," Androulakis said.

Those with neck pain had the next highest rate of suicide attempts, ranging from 263 to 314 per 100,000, excluding the peak of 398 per 100,000 in 2005.

Male veterans with chronic headaches had a 1.5 times greater likelihood of a suicide attempt than did those with back or neck pain (relative risk [RR] = 1.5), which increased to a relative risk of 2.8 greater for those with concurrent TBI. Among female veterans, chronic headache was associated with a 1.6 times greater risk of a suicide attempt, which rose to 2.15 times greater with concurrent TBI.

"Knowing that veterans with chronic headache disorders have an elevated rate of suicide, it is imperative that doctors and other clinical providers continue to conduct in-depth risk assessments and implement strategies to support those veterans who are at risk," said Grinberg. "Clinical providers should continue in their efforts to reduce stigma associated with headache disorders and mental health treatment in order to effectively engage veterans in evidence-based treatments that are likely a step towards reducing symptoms and suicidal attempts."

No external funding was noted. Androulakis and Grinberg had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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