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TBI Can Give Patients a 5 Year Headache

One of the most common symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) is headache. But common medical knowledge had been to tell patients their headaches would get better over time. 5 years later, a new study says maybe that isn’t the case.

Imagine having serious headaches 3 or more days a week for over 5 years. That’s the reality for many TBI patients. A new study shows that, contrary to prior medical belief, a post-TBI headache may not go away for over 5 years.

Sylvia Lucas, MD, a clinical professor of neurology and neurological surgery from the University of Washington Medical Center recently presented a study at the American Headache Society’s annual meeting. The topic: how long post-TBI headaches last.

The study began over five years ago. It surveyed 452 patients admitted to seven acute inpatient TBI rehabilitation centers between February 2008 and June 2009. Initial 1-year findings were published in 2011. Of the original sample, 316 were tracked the full five years. In both studies, the researchers tracked new or worse headache prevalence, frequency, and intensity before and after the traumatic brain injury.

Lucas said:

“Before we published our data in 2011, medical students were taught to tell their patients that their headaches would get better following a TBI. . . . It was surprising then that so many still had new or worse headaches at one year, and it now looks that’s still true five years later.”

More than a third of all the patients tracked still had new or worse headache prevalence five years after their original injury. On a zero to 10 scale, these headaches clocked in around 5.7.

These aren’t just a dull ache either. The most common type of post-TBI headaches resembled migraines, including up to 59% percent of the reported headaches at the 5 year mark. These headaches involve throbbing pain, nausea, and even vomiting.

Lucas says the results of her survey call out the need for more study.

“We have no data on how well our standard medications work for this population,” she said. “Standard practice right now is if it looks like a migraine and smells like a migraine, we treat it like a migraine, even though technically these are not migraines. It’s an area for future research.”

Dr. Stewart Tepper, MD, a professor of neurology and director of research at Dartmouth Headache Clinic in the Geisel School of medicine was alarmed by the findings. He told Neurology Today:

“We really do not have any good evidence to tell us what to give these patients.”

Without further research, doctors are not left with much hope to give their patients. All they can do now is warn people: the injury may have healed, but the headache isn’t going away.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents TBI victims resulting from car crashes to make sure their medical needs are covered. If you have suffered a brain injury, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.