Bullying Could Help Bring on Headaches for Teens

So, your high schooler has been complaining of headaches. Should you worry?

Maybe, claims new research that finds bullying and suicidal thoughts are both linked to more frequent headaches in teens.

“Headaches are a common problem for teenagers, but our study looked beyond the biological factors to also consider the psychological and social factors that are associated with headaches,” said study author Dr. Serena Orr, of the University of Calgary, in Canada. “Our findings suggest that bullying and attempting or considering suicide may be linked to frequent headaches in teenagers, independent of mood and anxiety disorders.”

This isn’t proof that bullying causes headaches, but shows an association between the two. A study limitation is that headaches were self-reported.

The research included more than 2.2 million teens who were an average age of 14. About 0.5% of all the participants self-reported being gender-diverse, including transgender or nonbinary.

The participants answered questions about their headaches, including if they had them in the past six months and how often.

The teens also answered questions regarding mental health, including whether they had diagnosed mood or anxiety disorders or both; about bullying in the past year and about suicidal thoughts and attempts.

About 11% of participants reported having frequent, recurring headaches, defined as headaches occurring more than once a week.

About 25% of the participants reported being victims of frequent overt bullying, including physical and verbal aggression, being called names or insulted, and being threatened virtually. About 17% said they were victims of frequent relational bullying, including having rumors spread about them, being excluded and having harmful information posted about them on the internet.

About 17% of the teens surveyed said they had considered or attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Those with frequent headaches were nearly three times more likely to experience bullying than their peers. Meanwhile, teens who had been bullied or had suicidal tendencies were nearly twice as likely to have frequent headaches as their peers. Those with mood and anxiety disorders were 50% and 74% more likely, respectively, to have frequent headaches than their peers.

The study also found that 34% of teens with frequent headaches reported being victims of relational bullying at least once a month, compared to 14% of teens who had headaches less than once a week. About 34% of teens with frequent headaches had made one or more suicide attempts or had suicidal thoughts, compared to 14% of teens with headaches less than once a week.

Teens who reported being gender-diverse were more likely to have frequent headaches, but that link was not a factor after adjusting for being bullied or having a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder.

The findings were published online Aug. 2 in the journal Neurology.

“Though gender-diverse teens appear to have a higher risk of frequent, recurring headaches, this association disappears after controlling for bullying, anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies, suggesting that perhaps gender diversity is not, in and of itself, related to frequent headaches, but that the psychosocial factors associated with it may explain this link,” Orr said in a journal news release.

“These results should compel future research into interventions for bullying and a better understanding of how gender-diverse youth are at a higher risk of headache disorders,” Orr added. “These findings should urge policymakers to increase efforts towards bullying prevention and should encourage doctors to screen children and teens with headache disorders for bullying and suicidal tendencies.”

More information

The American Psychological Association has more on bullying.

SOURCE: American Academy of Neurology, news release, Aug. 2, 2023