People with ADHD are at greater risk for migraine, and vice versa. Here’s why.

Migraine and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are two neurological conditions that happen together more often than one might expect.

Migraine headaches result in debilitating pain and often include severe sensory disturbances. ADHD is characterized by behavioral symptoms, including impulsivity and inattention.

So why do these conditions occur together so often?

Research shows a strong link between migraine and ADHD in children and adults. And the association seems to work both ways: People with ADHD are more likely to have migraine, and those with migraine are more likely to have ADHD.

A 2018 study of 26,456 participants published in BMC Neurology demonstrated a significant overlap between ADHD and migraine in adults. Researchers found that migraine was linked to both types of ADHD: inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity.

They also found that the link was even stronger for migraine with aura, which are sensory disturbances that can include seeing flashes or spots.

Co-occurring migraine and ADHD were seen more commonly in people in their 40s and early 50s than participants ages 17 to 29.

Another 2011 study looked at the prevalence of migraine in 572 adults with ADHD compared to 675 community controls. The findings, based on questionnaires, show that the presence of migraine was significantly higher in people with ADHD (28.3%) compared to controls (19.2%).

When broken down by gender, the results showed that:

  • 22.5% of males with ADHD had migraine, compared to 10.7% of male controls
  • 34.4% of females with ADHD had migraine, compared to 24.9% of female controls

In all participants — those with and without ADHD — migraine was also linked to symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders.

The strength of the link between the two conditions is underscored by research showing that they typically affect very different groups of people when they appear on their own.

The BMC Neurology study notes that migraine is twice as common in females, and its onset ranges from adolescence to the late 50s. ADHD is more common in males and has an early onset, affecting about 5.3% of children and adolescents worldwide.

And yet there’s still a strong link between the two conditions.

While the exact cause of migraine is unknown, some evidence suggests that migraine is related to dysfunction in the dopamine system. In fact, the 2018 research showed that migraine symptoms could be triggered by dopamine receptor stimulation.

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that plays a role in our ability to think, plan, and experience pleasure.

Dopamine is long believed to be involved in ADHD, as well. This is supported by the fact that ADHD symptoms respond well to stimulants, which act on dopamine receptors, and are often the first-line treatments for ADHD.

So while the brain’s dopamine system is likely a factor in the ADHD-migraine link, it’s probably more complex than dopamine alone.

For instance, migraine is also more commonly seen with other psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and mood disorders. This may point further to a biological or genetic cause.

It’s also hypothesized that migraine may be triggered by the stress of living with ADHD, such as having difficulty concentrating and completing important tasks.

Migraine triggers

Migraine may be triggered by various, including the following:

  • hormonal changes
  • medication
  • stress or anxiety
  • low blood sugar
  • dehydration
  • skipped meals
  • caffeine or alcohol
  • lack of sleep or tiredness
  • strenuous exercise (more than you’re used to)
  • specific foods with excess tyramine (an amino acid)
  • bright or flickering lights
  • loud noises
  • changes in temperature or humidity
  • smoking (or being in a smoky room)

Everyone with migraine experiences it differently, but specific symptoms are more common.

These might include the following:

  • severe throbbing or dull aching head pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • tiredness
  • extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and touch
  • dizziness
  • tender scalp
  • visual disturbances
  • tingling or numbness, particularly in the face or hands

Many of these symptoms result from aura — a set of sensory disturbances experienced in about a quarter of people with migraine.

Aura is typically a visual phenomenon and may include seeing flashes, spots, zig-zags, or temporary sight loss. Often, this starts at the center of vision and moves to one side. Aura may also cause numbness, tingling, and speech problems.

Migraine with aura, also called “classic migraine,” has a particularly strong link with ADHD.

People with migraine may react differently to medications that act on the dopamine system. This includes stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, common medications used to treat ADHD.

In some people, stimulants can trigger or worsen migraine symptoms. In others, these drugs may improve migraine symptoms.

In some cases, migraine may be an indirect effect of stimulants. For instance, these medications tend to suppress a person’s appetite, and skipping meals can sometimes trigger migraine.

While stimulants may trigger or worsen migraine in some people, it’s necessary to note that migraine is still seen in people with ADHD who are not on stimulants.

Migraine requires both acute and preventive treatments. Over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs (e.g., triptans) can help once the migraine attack begins. Other medications, such as beta-blockers, can help prevent migraine before it begins.

It’s also recommended that those with migraine consider making specific lifestyle changes. Getting plenty of sleep, not skipping any meals, and avoiding your triggers, such as alcohol or particular foods, can help lower the risk of developing a migraine.

Here’s a more comprehensive list of preventive and acute treatments for migraine.

Migraine and ADHD are two neurological conditions that co-occur in many people. In fact, the 2011 study suggests that more than one person in four with ADHD may live with migraine.

Migraine with aura seems to have a particularly strong link to ADHD. And migraine occurs in people with various symptoms of ADHD, including the inattentive and hyperactive types.

While the exact reason for this link is unknown, it may be related to the brain’s dopamine system, as well as genetics and other factors.

If you live with ADHD and migraine, it’s crucial to stick to a healthy lifestyle and speak with your doctor about which medications may be right for you.