Post Traumatic Headaches (PTH) can be linked to TBI and PTSD

post-traumatic-headache-definitionWhat is a TBI?

A traumatic brain injury is a dysfunction in the brain that was caused by external force or trauma, such as a violent blow to the head by an object.  They can happen after severe injuries or car accidents and are characterized by symptoms like:

  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Difficulty with concentration

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What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the condition used to describe one’s inability to recover after severe emotional or physical trauma, especially after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event.  PTSD is hard to label because of all the different events that can lead to the diagnosis.  In essence, PTSD is characterized by symptoms like:

  • Nightmares
  • Situational avoidance
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Heightened reactivity to stimulus
  • Major depression
  • Violence

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What is the Link between TBI and Headache?

TBI often leads to a diagnosis of PTSD, but sometimes they will not meet all the PTSD criteria; however, post-traumatic headache (PTH) is experienced in anywhere between 18-65% of TBI cases.  The International Headache Society defines PTH as a headache, with symptoms similar to migraines, that develops within one week after the injury, or after the person has regained consciousness.  These headaches include symptoms like:

  • Moderate to severe pain
  • Pulsating sensation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sound/light sensitivity
  • Worsened pain with activity
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Mood and personality changes

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What is the Link between PTSD and Headache?

Headaches are not a well-studied aspect of PTSD among mental health professionals, and that is generally because there is a host of other problems associated with the condition, including the above symptoms, as well as being at higher risk of developing chronic diseases like:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic pain

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Chronic pain, for instance, presents in approximately 20-30% of PTSD patients. Furthermore, many patients with migraines often report traumatic events at some point in their life, with 17% of those people meeting PTSD diagnosis criteria. Additionally, about 32% of veterans with PTSD also suffer from headaches.

So, what is the connection?  The common link that can be identified is stress, and PTSD symptoms can obviously lead to extremely high levels of stress and emotional distress.  Add to that the usual stressors one experiences in everyday life, and you have a breeding ground in the mind for chronic headaches.

What Can I Do to Manage These Headaches?

PTH and PTSD-related headaches can lead to difficulties getting through daily life, missing school/work, mood instability, and decreased quality of life.  Therefore, it is vital to find ways to help manage this pain.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Work with a functional medicine practitioner who will look at your case as a whole and consider every symptom (even ones that seem unimportant or unrelated) in their treatment recommendations
  • Use anti-inflammatories or pain relievers for the first few weeks, but do not become dependent on these
  • Learn stress management techniques like physical activity, biofeedback, breathing exercises, meditation, support groups, etc.
  • Undergo CBT or DBT, with a focus on PTH or PTSD
  • Set up physical therapy
  • Talk to your doctor about nerve stimulation

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The above are just examples of some things you can consider in managing your traumatic headaches.  PTH and PTSD affect many areas of your mind and body, so it is vital that you consider an approach that looks at the body as the sum of its parts, rather than trying to treat individual symptoms.  Talk to your doctor, or meet with a functional medicine specialist in your area to learn more about your options and developing a personalized plan.

Sources:

  1. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/living-with-migraines/types-of-headachemigraine/post-traumatic-headache/
  2. https://www.verywell.com/the-association-between-ptsd-and-headaches-2797467

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