When most people think of the complications of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they picture sleepless nights, intrusive flashbacks, and withdrawing from others to avoid the constant fear of threats. However, there are very real physical side effects that result from PTSD, with sufferers experiencing increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, chronic pain, and persistent migraine headaches that prevent the victim from working or living life to the fullest.

Studies Show That PTSD and Migraines Go Hand-in-Hand

There are a number of theories as to why people with PTSD are more likely to experience problems with headaches, but the most common involves stress. PTSD causes persistently high levels of stress due to intense feelings of fear, anxiety about surroundings, and tension in social situations. The strain of reliving the event can easily cause tension headaches, as can the physical responses of grinding teeth and clenching muscles in the neck and back.

One study of civilian participants showed a worrying link between migraines and PTSD:

  • In the course of one year, people with migraines suffered PTSD at a rate of 14.3%, while those without headache disorders only suffered a 2.1% rate of PTSD.
  • Migraine sufferers reported a lifetime PTSD prevalence rate of 21.5%, compared to just 4.5% in people without migraines.
  • People with migraines were not only at risk of suffering PTSD, they were also at increased risk of suffering major depression or generalized anxiety.
  • In subjects with both migraines and PTSD, PTSD symptoms occurred before migraines in roughly 70% of participants.
  • People with migraines reported nearly twice as many traumatic stressors than those who did not suffer from headaches. Traumatic life events suffered by people with migraines included sudden injuries, death or injury of a close family member or friend, seeing someone killed or injured, and violent attacks.

Migraines Caused by TBI Are Especially Likely to Lead to PTSD

Not only does PTSD lead to headaches, but some studies indicate that headaches caused by trauma can lead to PTSD. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) due to falls, car crashes, and other accidents frequently cause persistent headaches, so much so that the condition has its own name: post-traumatic headache (PTH).

After the head or brain is injured, headaches often occur as the brain attempts to heal itself. Any headache that develops within seven days of trauma could be labeled as a PTH. This type of headache commonly resembles a migraine, with a severe intensity that causes nausea or vomiting and makes the sufferer sensitive to lights and sounds. While PTH will usually resolve itself within three months of trauma, it may last longer (persistent PTH) and result in dizziness, insomnia, concentration and memory problems, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and changes in personality.

A person suffering from PTH is likely to develop PTSD due to the relationship between brain injuries and PTSD. The headaches may be the patient’s first symptom of PTSD, and he or she may not realize that the headaches are actually a side effect of the emotional rather than the physical trauma. In most cases, medication is used to treat these kinds of headaches, including migraine medications known as triptans. If the patient’s brain activity has sufficiently recovered from injury, doctors may prescribe antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and anti-seizure drugs to combat severe and persistent PTH.

It can take a variety of treatments before sufferers of TBI, migraines, and PTSD can fully control or cope with their conditions. Patients may need psychological support in addition to physical therapy and medication, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or and biofeedback treatments. Therapy can be highly effective in combatting the physical and emotional symptoms of these conditions; unfortunately, these conditions are costly and are often not covered by standard insurance.

If you are unable to work due to severe and persistent headaches, we can help. If your condition prevents you from performing daily activities or limits your ability to do the work you once did, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Please contact our law firm today to get started on your disability application, or download our free report, Five Most Frequently Asked Questions about Social Security Disability.

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John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer