Post-Traumatic Headaches: A Common Side-Effect of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Post-Traumatic Headaches

What are post-traumatic headaches?

Post-traumatic headaches is a frequently reported symptom from those who have experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI). In general, the symptoms of post-traumatic headaches are highly similar to those experienced from cluster-headaches or migraines. In order to be classified as a post-traumatic headache, the onset of the pain should have initiated within seven days or so of the head trauma. Post-traumatic headaches can last for a patient’s lifetime after the traumatic accident.

Post-traumatic headaches are often associated with other debilitating symptoms such as nausea, phonophobia and photophobia, and cognitive and psychological symptoms. The pain from port-traumatic headaches can alter people’s lives in significant ways. People often need to miss work as a result of the symptoms. They may also adopt mal-adaptive pain behaviors such as turning off the lights in their homes and distancing themselves from others in attempt to mitigate the headaches.

Who are most likely to get them?

Among those who have experienced traumatic brain injuries there are a few different factors that may influence the likelihood of developing post-traumatic headaches. Research has shown that women are more likely than men to experience post-traumatic headaches and that those who have a history of migraines and severe headaches are more likely to develop chronic headaches as a result of traumatic injuries.

What causes post-traumatic headaches?

The most common cause of post-traumatic headaches are motor vehicle accidents. Post-traumatic headaches also frequently occur as a result of falling, physical violence, and sporting injuries. There are several different theories as to what causes individuals to experience persistent headaches long after the date of their traumatic accidents. One idea is that traumatic brain injury may lead to both neurological inflammation and the release of certain chemicals in the brain which could contribute to the onset of the condition. Additionally, many physicians assert that post-traumatic headaches may contribute to the emotional burden related to post-traumatic anxiety and depression as a result of the traumatic injury.

Treatment options for post-traumatic headaches

Medications such as anti-inflammatory agents, triptans (normally used to treat migraines), and pain medications may be prescribed to alleviate post-traumatic headaches. Other medications such as anti-depressants, blood pressure medications, and anti-seizure medications can also be prescribed to treat the symptoms. In addition to medications, psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, have also proved to be beneficial in the treatment of post-traumatic headaches in some cases.  Injections, such as occipital nerve blocks, are also used to treat headaches.  The benefit of these injections is that they tend to “re-set” the occipital nerve and relieve pain.  These  injections bypass the circulatory system, unlike oral pain medications, thereby avoiding systemic side effects.  They also have minimal adverse reactions and are safe when done by a trained physician.

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