News & Research

High Migraine Rates in US Soldiers in Iraq

Headaches among soldiers in their last three months of a tour of combat are 36% — more than twice — higher than the general US population experiences, according to a study presented at the American Headache Society‘s annual meeting. Even more interesting is that 93% of soldiers screened were men. In general, about three times as many women as men in the US have headache disorders.

A ton of possible triggers are there: stress (obviously), disrupted routine, new environment and weather, and food. I also wonder what their rates of depression are.

Check out the abstract for details:

TITLE: Prevalence and Impact of Migraine Among U.S. Army Soldiers Deployed to a Combat Theater

Objectives: To determine the prevalence, impact, and treatment of migraine headaches among U.S. Army soldiers participating in combat operations in Iraq.

Background: The prevalence and impact of migraines in military personnel serving in a combat theater have not been previously reported.

Methods: A brigade of soldiers from Ft. Lewis, Washington was screened with a validated headache questionnaire immediately upon returning from a 1-year tour of combat duty in Iraq. Headache symptoms during the last 3 months of deployment were sought. Headaches were classified into definite migraine, probable migraine, or non-migraine headache using IHS [International Headache Society] criteria.

Results: 2,725 soldiers were screened. 93% were men and 7% were women. The mean age was 27.4 years. 19% (518/2725) of soldiers reported headaches meeting criteria for definite migraine, 17.5% (476/2725) reported headaches meeting criteria for probable migraine, and 11.4% (312/2725) had non-migraine headaches. Only 5% (124/2725) of soldiers carried a previous diagnosis of migraine. The mean number of headache days per month was 3 for definite migraine, 1.5 for probable migraine, and 1 for non-migraine. The mean number of duty days impaired by headache over a 3 month period was 7.2 +/- 2 for definite migraine, 2.0 +/- 1 for probable migraine, and 1.7 +/- 0.5 for non-migraine. 473 sick call visits for acute headache were collectively made over a 3-month period by soldiers with definite migraine, 76 were made by soldiers with probable migraine, and 17 were made by soldiers with non-migraine headache. Only 3% (30/993) of soldiers with definite or probable migraine used triptan medication.

Conclusions: Migraine headaches are unexpectedly common among military personnel serving in a combat zone, affecting approximately 36% of U.S. Army soldiers. Migraine headaches adversely impact the ability of deployed soldiers to perform their military duties and are a common cause of sick call visits. The results also suggest that migraine headaches are sub-optimally managed in deployed military personnel.

2 thoughts on “High Migraine Rates in US Soldiers in Iraq”

  1. Hi my name is Adam Willemssen and I am currently (as of 18 Jan 2009) serving in Southwest Asia. I have been over here for four months and for the last two months I have been experiencing migraine attacks. At first I had my usual migraine (the visual disturbances, numbing and tingling in my hands, arms, face and mouth, nausea, occasional vomiting and of course the headaches). Over the last month the frequency of my attacks has almost tripled from one a week to 2-3 a week. Additionally, I no longer get the headache; I still get the visual disturbances that last 20-30 minutes and I generally feel subdued after these but no headache. I have no other symptoms that I can think of other than troubles sleeping. Even after being prescribed Ambien to try and help me sleep, I was unable to sleep a whole night through (for almost a month strait). I have not been exposed (that I know of) to any chemical agents, I do not suffer from depression, PTSD or TBI nor have I been a victim of an IED /explosive blast, my life over here isn’t extraordinarily stressful — pretty much just a regular ol’ deployment. After the frequency of my migraines nearly tripled, I went to see a doctor. After being my current migraine issue was dismissed as the evolution of a previous migraine condition, I was given prescription Midrin but haven’t yet used it as it is a pain killer — since I don’t get the headaches, I don’t see a need for it. I have recently read many of the studies that show the increased numbers of deployed American troops experiencing migraine or migraine like symptoms. I thought I was alone but after reading these articles I started asking around…two other people in my squadron are both experiencing the same migraine aura with no headache. Both of them describe the exact same symptoms as I have. There’s not a whole not we three have in common other than what we eat, drink and breathe. My bet is that the cause of our migraine with aura but without headache is caused by some environmental or nutritional variable yet undiscovered. I put all this out there because as someone who might normally get one headache a quarter and now gets 2-3 a week; I need your help. Many of the studies that reference higher incidences of migraine in deployed troops point to the lack of effective “treatment” of migraines for those in the field as the big problem. This is nothing new for migraine sufferers — we’re ignored all the time when we go to doctors. We’re used to it. The big problem is that no one is looking for a cause. I say that we should be looking for a cause. While stress can play a huge role as a migraine trigger it does not account for the overwhelming statistics given in the studies. We have an opportunity to compare and contrast data and really narrow down a cause — or at the very least attempt to explain why the increase in deployed troops is twice that of previously established norms. As a future med student I am very interested in this type of research. I will volunteer to talk with anyone who will listen. I will help research the physiological cause and effect of migraines with anyone who will allow me to help. My email address is Please feel free to contact me if you want to help out.

  2. At first I thought of not writing anything, but realized that I had some possibly valuable information. One of the things that can happen, but not always,is an increase in migraines or the start of them after a brain injury and these are quite prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan. They need to be tested for PTSD but also Brain Injury because the two have cross over symptoms.If a person had a been hit by an IED or been in some kind of accident where their head may have been involved in the last 3 months of duty,or at any time while serving, the possible onset of migraines can show in those months or even after returning home. Give it a thought.I hope that this information may be helpful for someone. There will also be other symptoms involved that only your doctor can diagnose, but don’t ignore any of them, whatever the problem, because there is help out there for all of this. Migraines are very complicated,and different with each person, but there are symptoms that we all have to some extent.Find a good doctor and they can lead you to the right medication for you. Then if you think that you also have a brain injury, there is lots of information on the web, talk to your doctor about that. Don’t put it off. And family and friends of that person, please don’t ignore this either. It’s important to get help as soon as possible.

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