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Understanding Post-Traumatic Headache: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Every year more than 1.5 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI refers to a sudden injury that results in damage to the brain. It could result from a forceful blow to the head or from an object that pierces the skull.

A post-traumatic headache is closely associated with a TBI. Research indicates that a post-traumatic headache is a complication of a TBI in 30% to 90% of all cases.

If you or someone you love has recently experienced a post-traumatic headache, this blog post is for you. Here, we will take a closer look at the causes, symptoms, and treatment options. The latter includes Sallie from Power of Patients.

Causes of Post-Traumatic Headache

As noted in the introduction, TBIs and post-traumatic headaches can result from various types of head injuries. These include concussions, skull fractures, or any trauma that affects the head and neck area.

The reality today is that the exact cause of post-traumatic headaches is not fully understood. However, there are several factors that are believed to play a role. Let's explore some of these.

Brain Injury

When a head trauma occurs, it can lead to damage to the brain tissue itself. The brain is a delicate organ, and any trauma can disrupt its normal functioning. This disruption can trigger a cascade of events that contribute to the development of headaches.

For example, inflammatory responses, chemical imbalances, ocular migraines, and altered blood flow within the brain can all contribute to the pain associated with post-traumatic headaches.

Nerve Damage

The head and neck region contains numerous nerves that are responsible for transmitting sensory information. During a head injury, these nerves can be stretched, compressed, or even damaged. This nerve dysfunction can lead to abnormal pain signaling, resulting in the development of headaches.

Blood Vessel Changes

Another contributing factor is changes in blood flow within the brain and surrounding structures. Following a head injury, blood vessel changes can occur. These changes can indeed lead to altered blood flow patterns.

Psychological Factors

It is also worth highlighting the role of emotional and psychological factors. These factors can influence the development and perception of post-traumatic headaches.

Anxiety, depression, and stress can exacerbate pain symptoms. They can also make them feel more intense. The psychological impact of a traumatic event can contribute to the persistence and severity of post-traumatic headaches.

Note that the causes of post-traumatic headaches can vary from person to person. They may involve a combination of the above factors. Understanding the underlying causes can help to determine effective treatment plans in the long term.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Headache

Put simply, the main symptom of post-traumatic headache is pain. This pain can manifest itself in different ways. Generally, the pain resembles tension-type headaches or migraines. Symptoms can also vary in their duration and intensity. Let's explore some of the common symptoms associated with this condition.

Head Pain

The most prominent symptom is a persistent headache. The pain can range from mild to severe and may have different characteristics. For example, it is often described as:

  • Throbbing

  • Pressure-like

  • Dull

The location of the pain can vary as well. Some individuals may experience pain in specific areas of the head or behind the eyes.

Sensitivity to Light and Sound

Many people who experience post-traumatic headaches may have sensitivity to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia). For example, exposure to bright lights may exacerbate the headache symptoms. This can include sunlight or fluorescent lighting.

Similarly, loud noises or even normal ambient sounds may intensify the pain.

Nausea and Vomiting

Post-traumatic headaches can be accompanied by feelings of nausea, and some individuals may experience vomiting as well. These symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe bouts of nausea and frequent episodes of vomiting. Nausea and vomiting may worsen during periods of intense headaches.

Cognitive Difficulties

1 in 4 American adults have some type of disability. The most common type of disability relates to cognition, with almost 13% of people experiencing serious difficulty with the following:

  • Concentrating

  • Remembering

  • Making decisions

Post-traumatic headaches can affect cognitive function. Individuals may find it challenging to focus on tasks, retain information, or perform mental activities that were previously effortless.

Vision Challenges

Post-traumatic headaches can often manifest with various vision disturbances. These can significantly impact an individual's daily life. These visual symptoms may include:

  • Blurred vision

  • Distorted vision

  • Sensitivity to bright lights

  • Visual field defects

It's important to communicate any vision challenges to your healthcare provider. They can provide valuable information for diagnosis and treatment planning. There are also a number of strategies that can help alleviate vision-related symptoms, including:

  • Wearing sunglasses outdoors

  • Reducing screen time

  • Modifying lighting indoors

  • Using computer glasses

Addressing any vision challenges and seeking appropriate care can help manage post-traumatic headache symptoms and improve visual well-being.

Sleep Disturbances

Studies show that as many as 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. don't get enough sleep. This can have a major impact on our overall health and well-being. Post-traumatic headaches can also interfere with sleep patterns, which can result in difficulties:

  • Falling asleep

  • Staying asleep

  • Experiencing restful sleep

Sleep disturbances can further contribute to overall fatigue and impact an individual's ability to cope with headache symptoms.

Mood changes

It is not uncommon for individuals with post-traumatic headaches to experience mood changes. These can include:

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

The chronic nature of the headaches and their impact on daily life can take a toll on emotional well-being.

As with causes, it's important to note that symptoms can vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience a combination of these symptoms, while others may primarily have headaches with minimal associated symptoms. The intensity and frequency of the symptoms can also fluctuate over time.

Treatment of Post-Traumatic Headache

The management of post-traumatic headaches involves a multidisciplinary approach. It should be tailored to the individual's specific symptoms and needs. Let's highlight some of the most common treatment options, including Sallie from Power of Patients.

Rest and Recovery

After a head injury, it is crucial to allow the brain and body to rest and recover. This may involve taking time off work or reducing physical and cognitive activities that may exacerbate symptoms.


Over-the-counter pain relievers can help to relieve mild to moderate headaches. These include acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In more severe cases, prescription medications, including triptans or muscle relaxants, may be prescribed.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making certain lifestyle changes can help manage post-traumatic headaches. These may include practicing stress-reduction techniques, such as:

  • Meditation

  • Deep breathing exercises

  • Avoiding triggers (such as caffeine and alcohol)

  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule

  • Proper hydration

  • Maintaining a healthy diet

  • Finding a supportive environment

  • Regular exercise

  • Taking nutritional supplements (i.e. Omega-3s)

It's essential to work closely with your healthcare provider to develop a comprehensive management plan.

Physical Therapy

For individuals with neck or head injuries, physical therapy may be beneficial. Therapists can provide exercises and techniques to improve neck and head movement, reduce muscle tension, and alleviate pain.

Psychological Support

Undoubtedly, dealing with post-traumatic headaches can be challenging. It's not uncommon for individuals to seek support from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or counselor. This can help individuals to cope with these challenges and develop strategies for managing their symptoms.


Sallie is our 24/7 virtual therapy dog. She works by guiding patients in their recovery from post-traumatic headaches and brain injury by tracking symptoms and triggers.

The value of Sallie is that it allows both patients and caregivers to better understand the impact of post-traumatic headaches on their daily life. This enables them to identify areas where they can make improvements. Ultimately, this may result in:

  • Improved quality of life

  • Better health outcomes

  • Ability to take control of their health

  • Speeding up of recovery process

Thanks to our digital health patient-led innovation and resources, you are able to be in control of your health and recovery.

Register for Sallie Today

If you or someone you know has sustained concussions or a post-traumatic headache, then you understand how overwhelming the symptoms can become.

Sallie aims to ease this feeling by being an incredibly easy-to-use and free TBI symptom-tracking dashboard. Using the dashboard at the beginning of ones recovery can help one identify symptoms and triggers.

The robust data collection approach includes various varying symptoms for our users to track. If you have injured yourself through a football injury or an accident, using Sallie for your TBIs can lead to a better recovery.

Register for Sallie here. We are here to help you!



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