ADHD Headaches and Migraine

ADHD Headaches: Are They a Thing?

Wondering if there's a link between your ADHD and headaches? The answer is yes, ADHD and headaches can be related. Individuals with ADHD may experience headaches due to factors like stress, medication side effects, or challenges with sensory processing. Understanding this connection is crucial for effective management and reducing the impact of both ADHD symptoms and headaches.

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Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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Can ADHD Cause Headaches? Exploring the Connection

Ever wondered why headaches seem to accompany your ADHD symptoms? It turns out, the link between ADHD and headaches might be stronger than we've realized.

In this article, we'll cover:

  • The science behind the ADHD-headache connection
  • How dopamine and ADHD symptoms can trigger headaches
  • Strategies to manage stress and alleviate headache pain
  • Practical tips to minimize the impact of ADHD-induced headaches

Curious to learn more about how you can tackle these headaches head-on? Keep reading!

did you know that people with ADHD can experience headaches more often?

The Connection Between ADHD and Headaches

According to research, there’s a significant correlation between Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and migraines. The risk of developing migraines and headaches is said to be higher in those with ADHD, especially children and adolescents, with the likelihood increasing with age and female sex. 

It was only after receiving my official ADHD diagnosis that I discovered the headaches I'd been living with for years were connected to it. 🤯

I've always been hit with really bad headaches and the odd migraine, where even the strongest painkillers just didn't cut it. Looking back, this was usually when I became overwhelmed with my ADHD symptoms, or frustrated at not being able to focus when I really needed to.

Now that I know this, I can confidently say that understanding this link is crucial for the effective management of migraine symptoms.

Before we continue, I quickly want to touch on the differences between headaches and migraines.

Headaches vs. Migraines: Understanding the Differences

Headaches and migraines might seem similar initially, but understanding their differences is crucial for effective management. 

Here's a deeper dive into what sets them apart:

General Headaches

  • Nature of Pain: Headaches often bring a steady, pressing pain across the head. The discomfort is usually mild to moderate and does not prevent most daily activities.

  • Duration: They can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week.

  • Symptoms: Unlike migraines, headaches typically lack additional symptoms like nausea or sensitivity to light and sound.


According to the Migraine Trust, migraines are distinctly different from headaches.

  • Nature of Pain: Migraines are identified by a throbbing or pulsating pain, usually on one side of the head. The pain is often moderate to severe, making daily tasks challenging.

  • Criteria for Diagnosis: For an episode to be considered a migraine, it must last 4-72 hours in adults (or 2-72 hours in adolescents) and meet two of the following conditions:

  • Unilateral location (pain is localized to one side)
  • Pulsating or throbbing quality
  • Moderate to severe intensity
  • Aggravation by, or causing avoidance of, routine physical activities

  • Additional Symptoms: Individuals might experience nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light or sound. Auras, or visual disturbances, are also common before the onset.

  • Chronic Migraines: This condition is defined by experiencing headaches on 15 or more days each month, with migraine features on at least eight of those days for more than three months.

Understanding these distinctions helps you recognize what you're experiencing and guides you toward the most appropriate treatment approach. Getting the correct diagnosis is the first step to managing your symptoms effectively, whether it's a headache or a migraine.

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The Link Between Migraine, Headaches & ADHD

Now that we've explored the different types of headaches and migraines, let's delve into their link with ADHD. 

The relationship between these conditions and an ADHD diagnosis can be attributed to three main factors.

1. Dopamine

Although the precise cause of ADHD is yet to be fully understood, ongoing studies are examining the significant role of dopamine - a crucial neurotransmitter involved in regulating emotions and motivation for rewards. Research suggests that individuals with ADHD might exhibit altered dopamine levels, including a potentially higher dopamine transporter density (DTD) in the brain, contributing to the disorder's main features. 

In simple terms, the dopamine levels of people with ADHD don't tend to behave in the same way as neurotypical people. 

According to a comprehensive study involving 1148 patients with episodic and chronic migraines, a significant portion of these individuals exhibit dopaminergic symptoms during migraine attacks, indicating a distinct connection with the dopamine system in the brain. Dopamine symptoms refer to physical or psychological manifestations that arise from imbalances in dopamine activity, affecting mood, movement, motivation, and sensory perception.

In the study, patients experienced dopamine-related migraine symptoms such as yawning, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and mood changes more prominently. These findings suggest that migraines with dopaminergic symptoms represent a more severe form of the condition, characterized by longer attack durations and increased sensitivity to smells and touch.

As dopamine affects a headache’s pain pathway, fluctuations in dopamine levels can potentially affect the onset and severity of headaches. 🧠

For example, brain scans show that the lower dopamine levels are, the more frequent migraines become, as it makes a person more sensitive to pain, which explains the ADHD connection. 

However, the relationship between dopamine levels and migraines presents a classic 'chicken and egg' dilemma. 

While some research indicates that dopamine levels can trigger a migraine attack, other studies suggest an association between migraines and a decrease in dopamine. This area requires further exploration to understand the exact dynamics between dopamine fluctuations and migraine occurrences. 

Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health (DSM-5) does not officially acknowledge a link between ADHD and migraines. Yet, emerging research and clinical trials are beginning to highlight a potential connection, prompting more investigations into how ADHD might influence the frequency or severity of migraines and headaches. 🤔

Beyond the connection between migraines and ADHD, researchers are also delving into the associations between ADHD and other health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), asthma, atopic eczema, gastroenteritis, allergic rhinitis, and many others. This expanding field of study underscores the complexity of ADHD and its potential impact on various physical health conditions.

2. ADHD Symptoms as Headache Triggers

While it's important not to overlook headaches, as they can sometimes signal the beginning of more severe health issues, it's also crucial for individuals with an ADHD diagnosis to recognize that many symptoms associated with ADHD could be contributing factors to their headaches.

These include:

  • Excessive physical movements brought by hyperactivity.
  • Sensory overload from overwhelming external stimuli. 
  • Fatigue and hunger due to unscheduled meal hours. 
  • Long hyperfocus sessions resulting in lack of food, hydration or sleep.
  • Lack of sleep due to the hyperactive brain and asynchronous sleep schedule hormones.
  • Forgetting to drink water due to forgetfulness and inattentive symptoms. 
  • Comorbid conditions, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders (like bipolar disorder), depression, or other psychiatric disorders.

Sometimes ADHD symptoms mask migraine episodes and other psychological symptoms, making it difficult to get a clear diagnosis of this potentially incapacitating illness.

Additionally, headaches can potentially cause ADHD symptoms to intensify. Regular headaches and migraine episodes can cause you even more difficulty concentrating on tasks, sleep disorders, and other various psychological symptoms. It can be a never-ending cycle that can only be broken with proper prescription medications and therapeutic management. 

That's why it's important to talk to your primary care physician and mental health professional for a clinical assessment for both ADHD and migraine diagnosis.

3. ADHD Medication

Individuals with migraine and ADHD face a complex interaction when it comes to their medication, particularly those that influence the dopamine system. 

Stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin, commonly prescribed for ADHD, can have varying effects on migraines. For some, these medications exacerbate migraine symptoms, potentially due to their impact on dopamine levels, which are already implicated in migraine pathology. Conversely, a subset of patients might experience relief from migraine symptoms when on these stimulants.

The relationship between stimulants and migraines isn't straightforward. By suppressing appetite, stimulants may lead to missed meals - a known migraine trigger for many. Additionally, headaches can emerge as a direct side effect of ADHD medications or indirectly through side effects like hunger or dehydration, as these drugs can diminish the body's natural hunger and thirst cues.

Additionally, many stimulants (such as methylphenidate) have side effects like insomnia, nervousness, and gastrointestinal issues, which can indirectly trigger migraines by disrupting normal bodily functions. Additionally, its impact on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems can directly contribute to headache and migraine onset. 

For those navigating the dual challenges of ADHD and migraines, it's crucial to discuss all treatment options and potential side effects with a healthcare provider. Tailoring medication to individual needs and monitoring for adverse reactions can help manage both conditions effectively, minimizing the risk of headaches and migraines triggered by ADHD medication.

4. Increased Stress Levels

High stress levels, and the increased cortisol (the stress hormone), can make headaches worse or more frequent. 

While everyone gets stressed once in a while, that’s an understatement for people with ADHD. 

People with ADHD are also more likely to experience chronic stress because of our impulsivity and the stressful situations it lands them in. We may also have difficulty finishing tasks and constantly feel like we’re falling behind. 

If stress levels are constantly high, it can lead to serious health problems like mood and anxiety disorders, heart disease, and even depression, though you already may suffer from these as comorbid conditions.

That’s why having stress management techniques such as mindfulness, regular exercise, and relaxation in your ADHD toolkit is essential for migraine and ADHD relief. 💆‍♂️

to help with headaches it's important to identify what could cause them

Practical Tips for ADHD-Induced Headaches

When you get a headache, you’ll typically take painkillers, pain-relieving medication that temporarily blocks pain signals. These pain relievers can temporarily fix your headache problems. 

But, if you're someone with ADHD, you know that it's not always that simple.

There are other ways to treat headaches and prevent migraine episodes from happening. 

These include:

  • Maintain a regular night routine that gives you enough sleep.
  • Incorporate regular exercise into your routine to help you release stress. Headache frequency decreases when you are physically active, which can also help you sleep better at night.
  • Eat a healthy diet and avoid trigger foods. Foods that can slow pain transmission can also help you reduce linked migraine episodes.
  • Keep a migraine journal about your migraine attack schedule or frequency. Show your migraine journal to your doctor for additional reference for your struggles.
  • Contact a licensed acupuncture practitioner and try some relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation. This can help you manage hyperactive ADHD and migraine headaches.
  • If you experience physical symptoms of migraine frequently, avoid taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relief medication without consulting your doctor first. It can trigger medication overuse headaches as a result.
  • Talk to your doctor about other options. If OTC medications aren’t working, they may recommend prescription pain relievers. There are also longer-term treatments such as injectable migraine treatment for chronic migraines that don’t respond to other treatments.

The combination of migraine and ADHD symptoms can be a lot to deal with, especially if they're not well-managed. We all know how challenging it is to focus on anything when you're in pain. 

But, by understanding the patterns and triggers of your ADHD migraines and headaches, you can find ways to prevent them, or at least reduce their frequency. 

If you have any concerns or experience physical symptoms, you should speak to a mental health professional to address your ADHD and migraine symptoms at the same time. 

By implementing these strategies and working closely with healthcare professionals, those of us with ADHD can gain greater control over our headaches and reclaim our quality of life. 🌟

Key Takeaways

  • ADHD and migraines are connected, especially in adolescents and children with ADHD, likely due to fluctuations in dopamine levels.

  • ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, sensory overload, irregular meal schedules, and fatigue can act as triggers for headaches.

  • ADHD medication may lead to headaches and migraines, stemming from its impact on the central nervous system or through indirect effects like suppressing appetite.

  • High stress levels, common in individuals with ADHD, can worsen headaches but stress management techniques such as mindfulness, regular exercise, and relaxation can help.

  • Practical tips for headache management include a regular sleep routine, a healthy diet, relaxation techniques, and alternative treatments.

  • Consult a healthcare professional for additional pain relief options, especially if over-the-counter medications aren't effective.

Understanding the relationship between migraine and ADHD is crucial for effective management. By identifying triggers, managing stress, and implementing practical strategies, we can increase our quality of life.

What’s Next?

If you want to explore the link between ADHD and other symptoms, you might be interested in these articles, too. 

ADHD and Anxiety: Understanding Their Coexistence

The Emotional Challenges Of ADHD Stress

The Link Between ADHD and Sleep Apnea

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can having ADHD cause headaches?

Yes, individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a chronic developmental disorder, can experience headaches. These headaches may stem from ADHD symptoms such as stress or tension related to managing daily tasks. The physical and biochemical connections between ADHD and the nervous system might also play a role in triggering headaches.

How do you get rid of ADHD headaches?

Managing headaches with ADHD involves a combination of strategies, including medication, lifestyle adjustments, and migraine prevention tips. It's essential to address the underlying ADHD symptoms through prescription pain relievers designed for headache relief or ADHD medication adjustments. Incorporating stress-reduction techniques and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule can also be beneficial.

Does ADHD physically affect the brain?

Yes, ADHD does have physical effects on the brain. Studies have shown differences in the structure and function of specific brain areas involved in attention, impulse control, and dopamine receptor stimulation. These changes highlight the physical health concerns associated with ADHD, including its impact on brain development and function.

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