Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are more likely to suffer migraines, and discrimination may be to blame, scientists say
- A new study found bisexual, lesbian, and gay people might have more migraines than straight people.
- Migraines are severe throbbing headache that lasts for over four hours and usually comes with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to noise and light.
- While the study did not conclusively find why LGB people might experience migraines at higher rates, there might be a link between the stress caused by discrimination and migraine frequency.
- "Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may experience prejudice and discrimination which can lead to stress and trigger a migraine," Dr. Jason Nagata, lead author of the study, said.
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A new study suggests sexual minorities might have migraines at a higher rate than their straight counterparts.
The study, published September 28 in the journal JAMA, found bisexual, lesbian, and gay people surveyed were 58% more likely to have had a migraine in their life compared to heterosexual people surveyed.
Dr. Jason Nagata, lead author of the study and professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told Insider that, while the study was not able to evaluate why sexual minorities might experience migraines at a higher rate than straight, he suspects discrimination may play a role.
"Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may experience prejudice and discrimination which can lead to stress and trigger a migraine," Nagata said. "They may also face barriers to accessing health care which can lead to worsened health."
Migraines are mysterious
Research on migraines is complicated. There is no clear consensus among clinicians and researchers on what the direct causes of migraines are, and how to best treat different types of migraines.
Migraines are acute headaches characterized by extreme pain, throbbing, and sometimes accompanied by vomiting, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound, according to the Mayo Clinic. Migraines can last anywhere from four hours to two days.
The study, which surveyed 9,800 adults, had people self identify if they have experienced migraines by answering where they had had five or more headaches that were at least four headaches, pulsating in one side of your head, and nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.
Stress from discrimination like racism or homophobia could trigger migraines, some experts say
Dr. Robert Cowan, a professor of neurology and chief of the Division of Headache Medicine at Stanford University, said while there can be some inaccuracy comes with self-identification of migraines for a study of this nature, the findings that sexual minorities might experience migraines at a higher rate doesn't surprise him.
"It's certainly not surprising given that the most common trigger for migraine is stress and in this culture, it's a lot easier to be straight," Cowan said.
Stress caused by discrimination like racism and homophobia has been linked to a number of health disparities in marginalized communities, from higher rates of Alzheimer's among Black women to higher rates of obesity among queer people.
Other experts are not so sure about stress as a cause of migraines for sexual minorities
While many experts and migraine-specific organizations cite stress as a primary trigger for migraines, not all experts agree.
Dr. Christopher Gottschalk, founder of the first headache medicine program at Yale University and assistant professor of neurology, told Insider he is skeptical of the study's findings, since only 4.2% of participants identified as bisexual, gay, or lesbian.
If anything, he said, he doesn't believe it would be related to stress. Rather than migraines being caused by triggers, Gottschalk said many of the things people read as triggers to migraines — like stress and lack of sleep — are actually caused by the impending migraine.
The period of time before a migraine sets in, which can last anywhere from hours to a few days, is called the prodrome. It can lead to irritability (which can increase stress), light sensitivity (which can make lights more painful), and a change in sleep pattern (which can lead to lack of sleep.)
Because Gottschalk believes stress does not actually induce migraines, he does not buy the idea that stress caused by discrimination could make migraines more frequent for LGB people.
What he found interesting about the study, instead, was its mention of quality of care, which he does believe can have a significant impact on the frequency and severity of migraines for sexual minorities.
"What is their experience of trying to get medical care and headache care given their sexual orientation? Do they have less access to good healthcare in general?" Gottschalk said. "What's the relationship between their sexual orientation and their experience in healthcare."
The findings indicate clinicians should pay close attention to sexual minorities who report problems with migraines
According to Nagata, while the study could not conclusively measure why LGB people might experience migraines at a higher rate than straight people, the findings indicate the importance of clinicians treating LGB patients with intentionally inclusive care.
"Health care providers should create an inclusive, welcoming, and safe environment for sexual and gender minority patients so they are not discouraged from seeking health care," Nagata told Insider.
"This could include providing posters, brochures, or educational materials about LGBTQ+ health concerns, posting a non-discrimination statement, and customizing patient intake forms to be inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations."
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