Veterans may be more likely to experience migraine attacks and headaches than civilians

Military veterans can face health challenges unique to their experiences, including migraine and headache disorders that stem from brain injury and other trauma experienced during combat. The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported that veterans are more likely to experience migraine and headaches than non-veterans. About 36% of U.S. veterans who served a one-year deployment to Iraq were diagnosed with migraine or showed signs of migraine, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans who have a traumatic brain injury may also experience a high rate of headaches. A headache frequency of 63% was found among veterans who were exposed to multiple sources of trauma, according to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Pain, and 33% of veterans at a polytrauma center who had suffered a traumatic brain injury needed to be referred to a neurologist for headache treatments and assessment. Headaches, particularly tension-type headaches, were found to be more common in those who had experienced a penetrating head injury.

A 2013 study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain also found a significant number of veterans who experience headaches, with about 12% —or 56,300—of veterans being diagnosed with a headache-related disorder in 2011. The study found headache diagnoses were more common among women veterans than men and that women veterans were more than 2 and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with migraine.

Unique Challenges

Veterans experience migraine symptoms that are similar to those that non-veterans experience, including headache, sensitivity to light and sound, among others. Those with post-traumatic headache—which can occur after a mild traumatic brain injury, like concussion—may experience headaches that feel similar to cluster headaches, migraine attacks or tension headaches. These headaches may start soon after the traumatic brain injury, but the symptoms may not begin until weeks or months after an injury.

Despite the frequent diagnoses of migraine and headache disorders in veterans, there are unique challenges veterans face in preventing and treating migraine attacks. People with this invisible disease already endure a social stigma due to people misunderstanding how debilitating migraine attacks can be. This stigma can compound the social hurdles veterans face, making it even more challenging for them to rejoin civilian life.

Veterans should be referred to a neurologist or headache specialist to receive a diagnosis and treatment for their migraine, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Treatment Options

Once a veteran has been diagnosed, doctors can help veterans identify their unique triggers for migraine attacks. Veterans can benefit from the same acute and preventive treatments that help others living with migraine. Lifestyle changes such as a regular, balanced diet, a consistent sleeping pattern and avoiding potential triggers can also prove effective.

But veterans—especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress—can also benefit from treatments that are geared toward their experiences. Guided imagery can help them relax mentally. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy can teach veterans the skills they need to process traumatic events, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can help them diminish the intensity they feel about prior traumatic experiences.

Stress management can also help veterans understand how to cope with stress—a frequent trigger—and reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks and headaches in the long term.

For more information on managing migraine symptoms and headache disorders, consult our doctor-verified resource library. Our Find a Doctor tool can also help you locate a headache specialist who can develop an individualized treatment plan for you.