Post-Traumatic Headache and Concussion


Trent Anderson, PhD, expands on what treatment options are currently available, and innovative research that may lead to new therapies

Every year, at least 1.7 million people in the U.S. experience a traumatic brain injury. The majority of these traumatic brain injuries are concussions, which can present as a headache and symptoms from confusion and blurry vision to difficulty sleeping and agitation. However, if the headache and symptoms that last days after the traumatic injury, the patient should seek treatment for post-traumatic headache from their health care provider.

Dr. Trent Anderson, a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Phoenix and a member of the International Concussion Society’s Scientific Advisory, has spent years studying post-traumatic headache to better understand the underlying mechanisms behind it. “Research into concussion from my own laboratory focuses on understanding and examining new therapies for treating the headaches that often develop and persist following concussion,” he says.

Dr. Anderson spoke with us about what post-traumatic headache is, what treatments are currently available for it, and what research is being done on the condition.

What is post-traumatic headache?

Post-traumatic headache is a headache that starts within seven days of a traumatic brain injury. “Post-traumatic headache may occur after any traumatic brain injury, but is most common after a mild post-traumatic brain injury, which includes concussion,” Dr. Anderson says, adding that the prevalence of post-traumatic headache following a concussion is between 47 and 95 percent.

The symptoms of post-traumatic headache most closely resemble a migraine or tension headache. If the headache persists for more than three months after the initial concussion, Dr. Anderson says it becomes a condition referred to as persistent post-traumatic headache, or chronic post-traumatic headache.

How to treat post-traumatic headache

Post-traumatic headache can be difficult to treat, especially once it has transitioned into a persistent stage. No medications exist specifically for treating post-traumatic headache, at this time.

“As post-traumatic headache most often resembles migraine and tension headaches, the best current treatment strategies often use medications approved for these other types of headaches,” Dr. Anderson says.

However, these treatments aren’t necessarily effective in post-traumatic headache patients, he says. “And how these medications alter the brain’s recovery process from a traumatic brain injury remains unknown.”

Promising research on the horizon

Although post-traumatic headache resembles migraine, Dr. Anderson says it may develop in the brain differently and respond to treatment differently. “We believe this may be due to the complexity of having multiple ongoing injury and repair processes from the mild post-traumatic brain injury that may act to promote, resist or work alongside the development of headache,” he says.

Dr. Anderson and his research team at the University of Arizona have been conducting research in order to properly understand the mechanisms behind post-traumatic headache. They began their research by studying the physiological differences between migraine and post-traumatic headache.

Then, the team created animal models of post-traumatic headache to research how traumatic brain injury sensitizes the brain to headache. They are also studying biomarkers that might be able to predict who is more likely to develop post-traumatic headache following concussion.

“As basic scientists and clinicians, we have a lot of work to do to improve our understanding [of post-traumatic headache] and identifying who is at risk for developing it,” Dr. Anderson says. He hopes his lab’s research on post-traumatic headache using animal models will help lead to the development of therapies that could help treat the condition.

“The development of post-traumatic headache in patients can be devastating, but it provides a unique opportunity to understand how a traumatic brain injury, like concussion, can induce headaches in an otherwise healthy person and brain,” Dr. Anderson says.

Raising awareness for post-traumatic headache

There has been significant increased awareness about the potential complications and risks related to concussion in the last few years. But Dr. Anderson still sees room for growth when it comes to educating people on post-traumatic headache.

“We need to continue on this avenue to ensure patients, parents, physicians, coaches and the general public have the best available information to make informed decisions and help recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion,” he says. “As part of this effort, I believe we still have significant work to do to raise awareness, particularly of post-traumatic headache.”

Trent Anderson, PhD, is a Scientific Advisory Board Member of the International Concussion Society. The International Concussion Society sponsored website Concussion.Org  is the number one destination for information related to concussion prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Our mission is to serve medical professionals, athletes, administrators, coaches, patients and the public by providing a central repository of accurate and scientifically vetted concussion research. Working alongside our world-class scientific advisory board, aims to be most trusted global index on one of the most common, yet least understood, forms of traumatic brain injury. If you would like to be interviewed for an influencer profile, please fill out this form.