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The Association between PTSD and Headaches

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Updated June 21, 2014

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Few people talk about it, but there is reason to believe that PTSD and headaches frequently co-occur. Even though headaches have received much less attention among mental health professionals than other problems in PTSD, the connection between PTSD and headaches makes sense. If you have PTSD, you are at greater risk for developing a number of other physical health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and pain. When it comes to pain in particular, for example, 20 to 30% of people with PTSD have been found to report problems with pain.

When it comes to headaches, it has been found that patients with migraine or tension headaches report high rates of exposure to traumatic events. In addition, about 17% have symptoms consistent with a PTSD diagnosis. Another study found that 32% of OEF/OIF veterans with PTSD say that they have problems with headaches.

The Connection between PTSD and Headaches

It is not entirely clear why people with PTSD may be more likely to experience problems with headaches. However, stress has been linked to the occurrence of headaches, and the symptoms of PTSD can definitely contribute to very high levels of stress and emotional strain. In addition, headache patients tend to have more stressful events in their daily lives. PTSD can greatly interfere with many aspects of a person’s life, such as at work and in relationships. This is likely going to cause more stress, increasing the likelihood of headaches.

In some cases, the type of traumatic event a person with PTSD has experienced may increase the likelihood of headaches. For example, if you were in an accident or situation where you experienced a head injury or a traumatic brain injury, you may be more likely to experience problems with headaches. In fact, OEF/OIF veterans are exhibiting high rates of traumatic brain injuries, which may account for the number of headaches reported by OEF/OIF veterans with PTSD.

Managing Headaches

If you have PTSD and are experiencing significant problems with headaches, it is important to visit with a doctor to discuss what your options are in terms of treatment. You can learn more about the different types of headaches, how they are diagnosed, and options for treatment from the About.com Guide to Headaches.

Given that high levels of stress are associated with headaches, it can also be important to put into action coping skills focused on reducing stress. There are a number of effective and healthy coping strategies for reducing stress if you have PTSD. Not only may these coping strategies help with their headaches, but they can also help reduce other stress-related problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Sources:

Asmundson, G.J.G., Coons, M.J., Taylor, S., & Katz, J. (2002). PTSD and the experience of pain: Research and clinical implications of shared vulnerability and mutual maintenance models. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 47, 930-937.

de Leeuw, R., Schmidt, J.E., & Carlson, C.R. (2005). Traumatic stressors and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in headache patients. Headache, 45, 1365-1374.

De Benedittis, G., & Lorenzetti, A. (1992). The role of stressful life events in the persistence of primary headache: Major events vs. daily hassles. Pain, 51, 35-42.

Ficek, S.K., & Wittrock, D.A. (1995). Subjective stress and coping in recurrent tension-type headaches. Headache, 35, 455-460.

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