Does surviving a terrorist attack rewire the brain? Study finds exposure to terror may increase risk of migraine, other headaches

Terror attack survivors are at higher risk of experiencing frequent migraines and tension headaches, claim the researchers behind a compelling study published in Neurology. Speaking to, study author Dr. Synne Øien Stensland said: “We know a lot about the psychological effects of terror attacks and other extreme violence on survivors, but we don’t know much about the physical effects of these violent incidents. Our study shows that a single highly stressful event may lead to ongoing suffering with frequent migraines and other headaches, which can be disabling when they keep people from their work or school activities.”

Stensland and her colleagues discovered this unnerving phenomenon after carrying out research on the survivors of the 2011 youth summer camp massacre on Utøya Island, Tyrifjorden. Over 69 people lost their lives during the attack, while 33 others were severely wounded. Of the 358 teenage survivors who were invited to the study, 213 accepted and became participants in the study.

They were queried on any headaches they’d had four to five months after the attack. Over a third of the female participants said that they suffered from migraines, while a little over half were prone to tension-type headaches. On the other hand, nearly half of the male participants had said that they were affected by headaches and 13 percent said that they had had migraines. In addition, the rate of daily headaches was 12 percent of the female participants and five percent of the male ones.

The participants’ responses were then compared to the ones given by 1,704 teenagers of the same age and gender who hadn’t been exposed to terror attacks. Based on the results, the researchers concluded that terror attack survivors were three times more likely to experience tension headaches and four times more likely to have migraines. Moreover, the findings remained consistent even after adjustments were made to take psychological distress, injury, and previous exposure to sexual or physical violence into consideration. (Related: Childhood Stress Induced by Trauma Increases Risk of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.)

“We suspected that headaches would increase for terror survivors, and the increase was over and above what might be expected based on psychological distress and other risk factors,” Stensland said of the results.

As to why a traumatic event can result in or worsen the frequency of headaches, Stensland told that the brain and body are alarmed by the experience, causing a wide scope of reactions. Increased neurological sensitivity, boosted stress hormone production, and changes to the immune system all lead to the brain becoming more “hypersensitive” and thus more susceptible to pain. The other effects of trauma, namely sleep issues, only compound the problem.

Following her team’s discovery, Stensland has recommended finding ways to assist the survivors of terror attacks in reducing their chances of developing frequent and oftentimes debilitating headaches. “In many cases with severe headaches, treatments can be most helpful early on before the condition becomes chronic,” she remarked.

The 2011 Norway attacks in brief

The attack on Utøya Island is one of two that occurred on July 22, 2011, both of which were committed by Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian far-right terrorist. The first attack took place in downtown Oslo, wherein a car bomb explosion killed eight people and gravely injured 12 more.

The Utøya Island massacre took place about an hour and a half after the bomb in Oslo went off. Breivik was able to access the youth camp by disguising himself as a police officer and claiming that he had arrived on the island to perform a security check after the Oslo bombing.

According to, Breivik was arrested, without incident, over an hour and a half later on the island. All in all, the total death toll of the attacks came to 77.

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