Gays, lesbians and bisexuals at higher migraine risk, study finds

Sexual minorities are significantly more likely to experience migraines than heterosexuals, according to a new report suggesting minority stress and discrimination may be the culprit.

Researchers interviewed more than 9,800 adults from the ages of 31 to 42 as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.

“We know stress in general can trigger migraines, and since sexual minorities experience discrimination and added stress, it seems logical that could trigger migraines.”

Dr. Jason Nagata

Just over 85 percent of respondents identified as exclusively heterosexual, 10 percent were “mostly” heterosexual but somewhat attracted to the same sex and about 4 percent identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. (The survey did not encompass gender identity.)

Gay, lesbian and bisexual participants had 58 percent higher odds of a migraine than their strictly heterosexual counterparts. The “mostly straight” participants had an increased rate of migraines equal to other sexual minorities.

Migraine headaches often produce an intense throbbing pain on one side of the head, though both sides can be affected. They can last hours or even days and be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and a sensitivity to light, sound or other sensory input.

Migraines are the fifth-leading reason for visits to the emergency room, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, and affect women more than men.

“We know stress in general can trigger migraines, and since sexual minorities experience discrimination and added stress, it seems logical that could trigger migraines,” Dr. Jason Nagata, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of the study, told NBC News.

“Previous research has shown migraines are more prevalent among other minorities, including Blacks, Latinos, women and people with lower socioeconomic status,” he said. “But no one had looked into sexual minorities.”

Dr. Jason Nagata.Courtesy University of California San Francisco

His findings were published Monday as a letter in the online version of JAMA Neurology.

Nagata controlled for outside factors — including age, race, ethnicity, education and economic level — as well as habits like smoking and drinking. But he said more study was needed to see if genetics or other elements were at play.

The immediate take-home for doctors, he explained, is to be more proactive in assessing their lesbian, gay and bisexual patients for migraines. “If you’re a primary care provider and a third of your patients suffer from migraines, you should make it part of the intake process,” he said.

Nagata, who studies disparities in sexual orientation in public health and medicine, also stressed the importance of creating a welcoming environment.

“Some sexual minorities report barriers to access to health care or discrimination at a clinician’s office and may be less likely to seek care,” he explained.

Doctors should offer materials on LGBTQ health, publicize nondiscrimination statements and have inclusive forms for sexual minorities, Nagata added, “so that they’re not discouraged from seeking care.”

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