A Veteran is using pressure techniques to alleviate migraines.

Migraines and Headache Disorders: When Your Headaches Become a Health Condition

There are steps you can take to modify your lifestyle, along with various treatment options, which can get you the relief you deserve.

When you get a bad headache, it’s hard to do anything. The pain may make it uncomfortable to drive, work, complete chores or spend time with your family and friends. Whether it’s dehydration or stress that’s causing your headache, or something more severe like a migraine, headaches can be treated.

With headache disorders affecting Veterans at a higher rate than the general population, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports, it’s important to learn more about the most common headache disorders and their symptoms, as well as the treatments and resources available to help you cope and feel your best.

Headache Disorders

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), headache is the most common form of pain. Many headaches are considered common and the result of stress, medication overuse, sinus pressure, dehydration and more. These headaches are usually short and respond well to over-the-counter medication.

But for Veterans, other more severe and debilitating forms of headaches are also common. Headache disorders include:

  • Migraine headaches – Migraine is a type of headache characterized by recurrent attacks of moderate to severe throbbing and pulsating pain on one side of the head. Attacks occur most frequently in the morning and can last from four to 72 hours. Migraines can be activated by routine physical activity. Common symptoms include exhaustion, nausea, increased sensitivity to light and noise, and more.
  • Post-traumatic headaches – These headaches usually occur following a hit to the head or the body or following a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a concussion or neck trauma. The headache usually develops immediately after the injury or within the next week and can feel like a migraine or a tension headache. Post-traumatic headaches often dissipate within a few months, but they can persist longer or become chronic, especially if multiple traumas have occurred.
  • Tension headaches – Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and include dull pain or discomfort in the head, scalp or neck. The pain often feels like a band squeezing the head all over. Tension headaches occur when the neck and scalp become tense or contract as a response to stress, depression, anxiety, caffeine or alcohol, eye strain and more. The pain may occur once, constantly or daily. Chronic tension headaches are more common among Veterans.

The Connection Between Veterans and Headache Disorders

Veterans can develop health challenges unique to their service and experiences in the military, including migraine and headache disorders. Maybe you suffered a concussion or a TBI from an explosion or an accident. Maybe you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are constantly tense or on edge, causing stress to your head and neck.

Here are some statistics related to Veterans and headache disorders:

  • Migraines occur in 20% or more of the post-9/11 combat Veteran population. This is compared to 3% of the general population.
  • More than 460,000 Veterans sought care for a headache disorder in 2022.
  • Migraines, chronic headaches and post-traumatic headaches are common symptoms associated with TBI. Post-traumatic headaches occur in up to 92% of military personnel who have sustained even a mild TBI.

Symptoms

Each type of headache has its own symptoms. For example, migraine headaches often feel like they’re on one side of the head, whereas a tension headache can surround the entire head. However, there are a few symptoms related to headaches which may require further evaluation, including:

  • Headaches that wake you up at night or early in the morning
  • A new headache after a head injury
  • Visual problems, such as dimming or double vision
  • Headaches that get worse when you move or change posture or position, like going from lying down to standing up
  • The quick onset of new or severe pain
  • A headache that never goes away
  • A headache that accompanies other symptoms such as fever, chills, rash, weight loss, confusion, weakness or dizziness
  • A headache that is different than your usual headache or is not fixed by your usual treatment

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to your health care provider to discuss them.

Headache Management and Self-CareA young man is taking migraine medication while having breakfast.

There is hope for Veterans suffering from headache disorders like migraine. There are steps you can take to modify your lifestyle, along with various treatment options, which can get you the relief you deserve. Your first step should be to reach out to your health care provider to discuss your symptoms and their impact on your life so you can work together to develop a treatment plan.

In addition, here are some ideas for helping you manage your headaches on your own:

  • Move your body regularly. Regular exercise has so many health benefits, including helping to reduce stress, lower your blood pressure and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moving your body has also been shown to decrease headache intensity in some people.
  • Avoid dietary triggers. 20% of migraine patients have some sort of dietary trigger that leads to the onset of a migraine. Common foods and drinks associated with migraine trouble include red wines, aged cheeses, processed meats, chocolate, caffeine excess and more. Use a food diary to determine if something you’re eating may be triggering your headaches.
  • Eat regularly. Skipping meals, especially for women, is linked to the onset of headaches. Avoid missing meals whenever possible and keep healthy snacks around to eat in between meals.
  • Get enough sleep. Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern and get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This can help you manage stress and relieve headache symptoms.
  • Stay quiet and rest. If you do get a headache, try to find a quiet place to rest. Noise and activity can make your symptoms worse. Light can also impact your headache, so try to turn out bright lights and close the curtains. If that’s not possible, wear dark glasses or a hat to keep the light away.
  • Figure out what triggers your headaches. A number of factors can trigger headaches, so try to figure out what causes yours. Is it bright lights? Strong smells? A bad night’s sleep? Loud noises? Overexertion? Once you know, you can work with your health care provider on ways to eliminate your triggers.
  • Get treatment. Check out the information below and work with your health care provider on a treatment plan that helps you prevent and manage your headaches.

Treatment for Headache Disorders

You deserve to feel better. Migraines and other headache disorders are debilitating and aren’t something you’re just expected to manage on your own. There is no shame in seeking help for headaches that are negatively impacting your life.

You and your health care provider can begin by discussing your symptoms and what treatments may be most effective for you. There is no “one size fits all” treatment plan that works for Veterans dealing with headaches, so it may take some time to figure out what works best for you.

Your health care provider may refer you to a neurologist or a headache specialist who can help you develop a headache prevention and treatment plan. Treatment plans usually aim to prevent attacks from happening as well as treat them effectively when they do occur.

Treatment plans may include:

  • Medications for headache prevention and symptom management
  • Non-drug therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and more
  • Alternative or natural approaches like massage or acupuncture, physical therapy and more
  • Lifestyle changes such as an exercise routine, relaxation training, a balanced diet and a healthy sleep routine

Resources for Veterans

  • Headache Centers of Excellence Program – This program was established by VA in 2018 with the mission to provide the highest quality headache care to Veterans living with headache disorders like migraines and post-traumatic headaches. To learn more about the types of care offered, check out Helping Veterans With Migraines and Headaches.
  • VA’s Whole Health Program – VA’s whole health program uses a variety of approaches to help Veterans manage headache disorders, including elimination diets, relaxation and stress management therapies (Tai Chi, meditation, etc.), manipulative therapies (chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, etc.), and more.
  • The National Headache Foundation – This site has a series of videos that address topics such as living with migraine, talking to your health care provider about your headaches, avoiding headache triggers and more. The Foundation also has a health resource initiative designed specifically for the military community called Operation Brainstorm.
  • Make the Connection – Learn more about headache disorders and treatments that work from the voices of Veterans like you.

Headaches can make it difficult to carry out important tasks and enjoy the activities you love. Don’t let your headaches get the best of you. Talk to your health care provider and find a treatment plan that works.

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