The relationship between brain injuries and headache

Headache is the most commonly cited symptom following a sports-related concussion, with some persisting for months—even years—after the initial brain injury. The CDC estimates that between 1.6 and 3.8 million recreation and sports-related concussions occur in the United States every year. While some athletes do receive the proper medical attention, many brain injuries and the post-injury complications that accompany them, often go undiagnosed and untreated. This is where post-traumatic headache comes into play.

Post-traumatic headache in athletes

Athletes and post-traumatic headache

Ninety percent of athletes with a sports-related concussion report having headaches after the initial injury. Unfortunately, the headache—like the injury—is not always evaluated and diagnosed because athletes underplay the severity of their symptoms. Also, with “headache” being a catch-all term, the proper diagnosis isn’t always made by a doctor. Unfortunately, post-traumatic headache is not widely discussed when it comes to athletes and concussions. But as more research and studies are published, we hope to learn more about PTH and how to better diagnose and treat those who experience it.

What is Post-traumatic headache?

The International Headache Society defines post-traumatic headache (PTH) as a headache that “developed within seven days of trauma or injury.” PTH is a side effect of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can be caused by a number of things, including motor-vehicle accidents, assault, a sports collision, falling, or accidentally hitting your head. The headache itself could be caused by inflammation, activation of the trigeminal nerve (main pain nerve in the head), or injury to the neck.

The headache usually feels like a migraine headache that is moderately to severely painful, has a pulsating quality, and often subsides after a few months. In some cases, these headaches persist and evolve into PTH. What you must remember is that post-traumatic headache can result from both mild and severe head trauma, so even if you don’t think you hit your head that hard, prolonged headaches could still be PTH.

What are the symptoms?

  • Pulsating head pain
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches that worsen with physical or mental exertion
  • Dizziness
  • Double vision
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety and changes in personality

If you’re experiencing prolonged headaches after sustaining a head injury, or if your headaches are accompanied by any of these other symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. Post-traumatic headache is not “just a headache.” Even if you feel like your headache is mild, you should still be evaluated to get a proper diagnosis and treatment if necessary.