People who suffer from migraine headaches are at greater risk for developing a mental health problem, new research suggests.

In a study of more than 4,000 German patients, researchers found that 11 per cent suffered from migraines, a type of debilitating headache that can be accompanied by symptoms such as sensitivity to light, chills and nausea.

A migraine can last for several days, and severely limit a sufferer's ability to perform day-to-day functions.

In the study, subjects who reported experiencing migraines were more likely to also have depression, or bipolar disorder, or suffer from panic attacks, substance abuse problems or phobias.

"Together, migraine and mental disorders cause more impairment than alone," lead study author Gregory Ratcliffe, a researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Manitoba, said in a statement. "Patients who have one condition should be assessed for the other so they can be treated holistically. Although it is important to know that both are present, treating one will have an effect on the other."

The findings are published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry.

According to the researchers, two theories may explain the relationship between migraine and mental disorders.

It could be that a common factor influences the development of both conditions, such as the impaired functioning of chemical messaging systems in the brain.

It could also be that one disorder can cause or precede another. Studies have found that anxiety often precedes migraine, which can precede depression.

The findings suggest that an underlying mental disorder may explain why many sufferers find it difficult to function normally when they are having a migraine.