Migraine and Headache Prevalence in Dystonia: A Comprehensive Study

Joaquin Farias PHD, MA, MS

Migraines and headaches are common yet often overlooked comorbidities in patients with dystonia. Our research delves into their prevalence in this specific population, presenting data essential for developing targeted treatment strategies. This post synthesizes our findings, providing a critical perspective on the neurological interplay between these conditions and offering guidance for enhanced patient management.


Within the general population, the prevalence of headaches and migraines is a well-documented health concern, with estimates indicating that 10% suffer from migraines and 40% experience headaches. However, when delving into the realm of dystonia—a complex neurological disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions—the incidence of these conditions becomes less clear and significantly under-studied. Our research aims at clarifying the occurrence and implications of headaches and migraines in this specific patient group, with the goal to foster a deeper understanding and better management strategies for those affected.

The Commonality of Pain

In our pursuit to understand the incidence of headaches and migraines among dystonia patients, we considered various forms of the condition and their potential connection to these painful comorbidities. Headaches, particularly in cervical dystonia, may arise from abnormal contractions of head and neck muscles, while migraines could stem from a myriad of factors, including hormonal dysregulation, physiological stress associated with dystonia and altered pain responses among dystonia individuals.

Our Study and Methodology

The Dystonia Recovery Program platform initiated a worldwide survey as part of our research and education initiatives. A total of 682 dystonia patients following our rehabilitation protocol were assessed, encompassing a range of dystonia types:

  • Spasmodic Dysphonia: 33 patients
  • Leg dystonia: 37 patients
  • Hand dystonia: 49 patients
  • Oromandibular dystonia: 78 patients
  • Cervical dystonia: 352 patients
  • Blepharospasm: 133 patients

Analysis of Results

Our findings revealed the following:

  • Spasmodic Dysphonia: 36.3% reported headaches, with 24.2% experiencing migraines.
  • Leg Dystonia: 21.6% reported headaches, and 18.9% had migraines.
  • Hand Dystonia: 20.4% reported headaches, with 8.1% experiencing migraines.
  • Oromandibular Dystonia: 37.1% reported headaches, with 21.75% having migraines.
  • Cervical Dystonia: A significant 46.5% reported headaches, and 18.7% experienced migraines.
  • Blepharospasm: 38.35% reported headaches, with 12.7% experiencing migraines.

In comparison to the general population, our study underscores a heightened prevalence of headaches and migraines in dystonia patients across various forms, excluding hand dystonia.

Difference Between Migraines and Headaches

The human experience of pain in the head ranges broadly, but it’s essential to differentiate between a headache and a migraine, as each has its unique characteristics and implications for treatment.

Tension headaches, the most prevalent form, typically manifest as a dull, aching sensation that envelopes the head, often compared to a tight band being squeezed around it. Stress, poor posture, and eye strain are frequent culprits.

Sinus headaches are linked to inflammation in the sinus passages, causing pain that intensifies with movements such as bending forward. These are often accompanied by symptoms of sinusitis, such as congestion, fever, and facial pressure.

Cluster headaches are less common but intensely severe. They occur in cyclical patterns or “clusters,” presenting as piercing pain on one side of the head, often around the eye. They may be accompanied by other symptoms like nasal congestion or a watery eye on the affected side.

Migraines, on the other hand, are a neurological condition characterized by intense, throbbing pain, frequently on one side of the head. Unlike other headaches, migraines can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Some individuals experience ‘auras’ before onset and that may continue during the experience, which can manifest as visual disturbances, numbness, or difficulty speaking.

Strategies to Manage Migraines

For those grappling with migraines, effective management is paramount and often involves a combination of lifestyle adaptations and medical interventions:

Create a Serene Environment:
At the onset of a migraine, seek out a tranquil, dimly-lit space. Soft, comforting surroundings can mitigate symptoms like light sensitivity and help ease the pain.

Temperature Therapy:
Applying hot or cold compresses can offer relief. Cold packs numb the discomfort, while heat can relax tense muscles. A warm bath may serve a dual purpose, relaxing both body and mind.

Caffeinated Beverages in Moderation:
A modest amount of caffeine can sometimes curb migraine pain in its early stages and may boost the effectiveness of pain relievers like acetaminophen or aspirin. However, moderation is key as excessive caffeine intake can lead to withdrawal headaches.

Prioritize Sleep:
Migraine sufferers often experience disrupted sleep. Establish a consistent sleep routine, avoid stimulants before bedtime, and create a restful environment to enhance sleep quality.

Mindful Eating:
Maintaining a regular eating schedule and avoiding known dietary triggers can reduce the frequency of migraines. A food diary can be helpful in identifying and managing these triggers.

Regular Physical Activity:
Regular exercise releases chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and improve stress resilience. Start slow and choose activities you enjoy to make it a sustainable habit.

Stress Management:
Develop strategies to manage stress, such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and time management techniques. Reducing stress can diminish the frequency and severity of migraines.

Migraine Diary:
Keeping track of migraine occurrences, triggers, and relief measures can provide valuable insights for you and your healthcare provider to tailor a more effective management plan.

Holistic Approach:
A well-rounded approach, including both medical and lifestyle modifications, is often the most effective strategy. This may include medication prescribed by your healthcare provider, complementary therapies such as acupuncture or massage, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.


The incidence of migraines and headaches is higher among patients affected by all forms of dystonia, with the exception of hand dystonia. This compelling evidence highlights the need for further research to discern causality and develop adequate treatments. We advocate for a dual approach—medical intervention complemented by lifestyle changes—to mitigate the pain and improve quality of life for those living with dystonia and its associated headaches.

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