Headache Among Patients With HIV Disease: Prevalence, Characteristics, and Associations

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Headache is one of the most common medical complaints reported by individuals suffering from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), but limited and conflicting data exist regarding their prevalence, prototypical characteristics, and relationship to HIV disease variables in the current era of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).


The aims of the present cross-sectional study were to characterize headache symptoms among patients with HIV/AIDS and to assess relations between headache and HIV/AIDS disease variables.


Two hundred HIV/AIDS patients (49% female; mean age = 43.22 ± 12.30 years; 74% African American) from an internal medicine clinic and an AIDS outreach clinic were administered a structured headache diagnostic interview to assess headache characteristics and features consistent with International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD)-II diagnostic semiologies. They also completed 2 measures of headache-related disability. Prescribed medications, most recent cluster of differentiation (CD4) cell count, date of HIV diagnosis, possible causes of secondary headache, and other relevant medical history were obtained via review of patient medical records.


One hundred seven patients (53.5%) reported headache symptoms, the large majority of which were consistent with characteristics of primary headache disorders after excluding 4 cases attributable to secondary causes. Among those who met criteria for a primary headache disorder, 88 (85.44%) met criteria for migraine, most of which fulfilled ICHD-II appendix diagnostic criteria for chronic migraine. Fifteen patients (14.56%) met criteria for episodic or chronic tension-type headache. Severity of HIV (as indicated by CD4 cell counts), but not duration of HIV or number of prescribed antiretroviral medications, was strongly associated with headache severity, frequency, and disability and also distinguished migraine from TTH.


Problematic headache is highly prevalent among patients with HIV/AIDS, most of which conform to the semiology of chronic migraine, although with some atypical features such as bilateral location and pressing/tightening quality. A low frequency of identifiable secondary causes is likely attributable to reduced frequency of opportunistic infections in the current era of HAART. Disease severity is strongly predictive of headache, highlighting the importance of physician attention to headache symptoms and of patient adherence to treatment.


(Headache 2012;52:455-466)

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