WESTBOROUGH, MA March 15, 2018 Serious and chronic headaches are a frequent complaint of those recovering from mild traumatic brain injury. “Headache is one of the most common symptoms after traumatic brain injury (often called “post-traumatic headache”). Over 30% of people report having headaches which continue long after injury.” (TBI and Headaches, 2010) They can be quite debilitating. The NCAA Headache Task force listed headaches as among the most debilitating symptoms in the aftermath of concussion. Young women tend to have a higher incidence of post-concussive headaches than males. There is treatment for post-concussive head pain.
Migraine headaches are three times more common in females than males. Rates of emergency room visits related to traumatic brain injury (including concussions) among women almost doubled from 2001 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In my own practice here in Massachusetts I have seen more recurring headaches in females than in males. In addition, female athletes generally have a longer recovery course than some of the males I follow. I will say that males are prone to abuse alcohol when recovering from concussion that may also be a confounding variable in the trajectory toward their normal baseline.
Individuals previously treated for headaches are at greater risk of both developing post-concussive headaches and for having chronic headaches following recovery from concussion. These injuries can be caused by not only sports but also falls, car crashes, blunt trauma (getting hit on the head by an object), and assaults as noted in a 2016 Health.com report on women and concussion. I have worked with several high school athletes who had pre-injury headaches and received treatment for chronic headaches who went on to have an increased frequency of headaches after concussion. I worked with a tenured college professor who developed headaches from being hit with a basketball at her daughter’s middle school practice. This was shortly after being diagnosed with concussion from a prior head trauma.
American Olympian Lindsey Vonn suffered with the effects of concussion for months following a skiing accident in 2015 including chronic headaches. The BBC recently featured 22-year old skier Rowan Cheshire who sustained a concussion 4 years ago that kept her from competing in the 2014 Olympic Games. Cheshire had won the World Cup event one month prior to the Olympics in Sochi and suffered a severe concussion in a fall off the halfpipe. It was the first of two subsequent concussions over the next 3 years that caused severe side effects including migraine headaches and panic anxiety. Cheshire worked closely with a sports psychologist during her recovery.
One reason for the difference between men and women in concussions is that women tend to have smaller neck and shoulder muscles allowing for greater whiplash from force striking the upper body. Episodic headaches are usually set off by a single stressful situation or a build-up of stress. These are tension-related headaches which may be unrelated to concussion but whose frequency and intensity change following concussion or when under stressful life conditions. Nevertheless, unchecked stress and tension may contribute to an increased proclivity for head and neck pain and both respond very well to biofeedback and alternative interventions such as acupuncture and progressive relaxation. Daily strain can lead to chronic headaches. Coupled with concussion, stress can become inflammatory in terms of the frequency and intensity of headaches.
“Post traumatic headaches are seriously debilitating in terms of lost school and work days. They are often a late symptom in the recovery from brain injury and concussion” Michael Sefton, 2018
In early childhood there is similarity between boys and girls in symptoms profile. This changes as children enter their growth spurt. “Puberty, which marks a significant developmental fork in the road for males and females, also marks a divergence for concussions. With its onset, females increasingly experience higher incidence of concussions, different and more severe symptoms, and are often slower to recover from the injury.” Treatments for post-concussion range from complete rest to gradual re-exertion, to physical therapy and more. There is a growing trend to slowly increase physical activity once symptoms resolve and I have seen a return of symptoms in cases where physical activity is premature and in cases of second or subsequent concussion.
One clear intervention for post-concussion headaches involves a paced-breathing protocol and neurofeedback that I have been using. I teach and practice stress management using biofeedback instruments that have demonstrated reducing duration of headaches, reducing stress, and lowering sympathetic abnormalities including heart rate. The goal of treatment is to reduce the body’s reactivity and normalize the autonomic system. “Fortunately, even if post-concussion headaches don’t get better in the first few weeks after concussion, most are better within 3 months and almost all are better within a year after injury” according to Heidi Blume, M.D., at the American Migraine Foundation.
Sefton, M. (2018) Abnormal Stress response from mTBI often sometimes leads to headaches. Response comment in Emergency Medicine Journal, Volume 34, Issue 12, February 23, 2018
Levine, H. (2016) The Truth about concussions and women. http://www.health.com/headaches-and-migraines/women-concussions
Roehr, B. (2016). Concussions Affect Women More Adversely Than Men: Differences between how females and males experience concussions suggest the need for gender-specific prevention and treatment strategies. Scientific American posted March, 2016. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/concussions-affect-women-more-adversely-than-men/ Taken February 28, 2018.
Lahz S, Bryant RA (1996). Incidence of chronic pain following
traumatic brain injury. Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 77(9),
Blume, H. (2016). Headaches after Concussion. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/headaches-after-concussion/ Taken February 28, 2018