Headaches can be a significant problem for many accident victims following a brain injury. Many types of headaches can occur after TBI:
- Headaches related to the head itself
- Tension headaches
- Head and neck pain associated with whiplash injuries; and
- Migraine headaches triggered by head trauma
Many assume incorrectly that migraine headaches occur primarily in adults. In fact, migraines frequently occur in children and are often worsened by trauma to the head/brain. Children who have a family history of migraines are more vulnerable than children who do not have a family history. Migraine headaches are severe, usually localized to one side of the head, described as pounding or throbbing, and often associated with nausea, with or without vomiting. There may also be visual symptoms preceding the pain (often described as looking through wavy water or flashing lights), and hypersensitivity to light and noise.
Tension headaches are also common after TBI. These headaches are less severe than migraines, and are often described as producing a dull, band-like ache. They can be triggered by stress related to social and academic difficulties when re-entering the school or the community.
Headaches can be frightening to parents, who may be wondering whether there is some delayed complication from the head injury. Complications that cause headaches usually occur during the acute hospitalization or immediately after the injury. If headaches being weeks to months (or even years) later, it is unlikely that they indicate a serious problem, but check with your family doctor or neurologist to be certain.
The general rule is that you should seek emergency care for the accident victim if they are having a very severe headache described as the very worst one of their life. If the headache is not so severe, but recur, your doctor should evaluate the accident victim on a non-emergency basis. Most headaches in accident victims are handled by “symptomatic treatment”. That is, when headaches occur, treatment is provided to try to get rid of the pain; usually by resting and taking medication like Ibuprofen or Tylenol, if necessary.
If the headaches are bad enough and occur often enough, some people take medication to prevent the headache from starting in the first place. The drawback to this approach is that the medication needs to be taken every day, and of course, all medications have potential side effects. A variety of medications can be used to prevent headaches, but your doctor has the last say in terms of what should be taken and for what period of time. Addiction and dependence to medication is always a concern as well.
Post traumatic headaches after a severe brain injury can obviously be frightening and worrisome to family members. Consequently, it’s very important to understand the headaches and develop a plan to manage them appropriately. This should be discussed with your doctor, and members of the rehabilitation team. Your personal injury lawyer might also be able to point you in the right direction, or provide you with resources to better manage.