Concussion and Post-Traumatic Headache

Explaining the link between head injuries and headache

Each year, nearly 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur in the United States. Aside from immediate damage, these injuries can also cause Post-Traumatic Headache (PTH). Concussions account for about 75 percent of these injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Though they are common, there are many misconceptions about concussions, which prevents many people from being properly diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Headache. Learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatments for Post-Traumatic Headache.

What is Post-Traumatic Headache?

According to the International Headache Society, Post-Traumatic Headache is “a headache developing within seven days of the injury or after regaining consciousness.” Dr. Amaal Starling, an Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., says the symptoms can vary. “It can be mild or severe, infrequent to continuous, or it can be persistent,” she said. “It can have migraine features like sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, or vomiting, or it may not have those features.”

What qualifies as a concussion?
Post-Traumatic Headache usually occurs after a head injury like a concussion. However, many people don’t realize they’ve had a concussion, so a week later when they suffer head pain, they overlook the possibility that it’s related to their earlier injury.

Concussion is defined as a traumatic brain injury that changes the way the brain functions. Concussions can occur as a result of a direct hit to the head (by the ground or an object), or from violent shaking of the head and neck (like “whiplash” injury). This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around in the skull, which can cause chemical changes in the brain or damage brain cells.

Starling says there’s a common misconception that someone has to lose consciousness to have a concussion, which contributes to its underdiagnosis. “Less than 10 percent of individuals who have had a concussion actually lose consciousness,” she said.

How can you treat Post-Traumatic Headache?

If headache occurs in the days after a head injury, do not try to self-medicate. See a doctor immediately. Over-the-counter painkillers can lead to Medication Overuse Headache or cause more serious complications.

A doctor might prescribe migraine medication, antidepressants or behavioral treatments.. The American Headache Society notes that occupational, physical, and speech therapists also work with Post-Traumatic Headache patients.

“Patients need to be encouraged to seek the advice of a healthcare provider who can design an individualized treatment plan for both active rehabilitation and recovery for the concussion, as well as the active treatment for the posttraumatic headache,” Starling said. “In addition, if we can give you early treatment, it may prevent the development of more persistent headache and more persistent symptoms overall.” 

Post-Traumatic Headache is a serious issue and should not be treated on one’s own. If you’ve had a head injury—even if you didn’t hit your head and weren’t knocked unconscious—it’s essential to see a doctor to learn about your risk for Post-Traumatic Headache, possible symptoms and treatment options. Visit the American Migraine Foundation’s database of headache specialists to find a treatment center near you.