Headaches are a common symptom following a concussion.
Pain is a personal experience influenced by emotions, attitude, and perception. It's real and complex.
How to manage your headaches
- Identify the cause of your headaches.
- Actively participate in headache management.
- Learn about your condition.
- Be open to various treatment options, including medications.
- Follow the recommended treatment plan.
- Recognize that both psychological factors like stress and physiological factors play a role in persistent headaches.
Types of headaches after a concussion
Following a concussion, you might experience one or more of these headache types:
Local pain in the back of the head/neck/shoulder
- Characteristics: Dull and steady pain starting at the base of the head/neck area, often spreading to the front. It commonly gets worse as the day goes on and it may spread over the top of the head to the front part of the head.
- Cause: Typically originates from irritated neck muscles or surrounding tissues. Sometimes, bony structures are involved. Cervical symptoms are complicated by injury to multiple structures within the neck such as discs, muscles and ligaments. Compressed discs may press on nerves in the neck. Pressing on the nerve can make parts of the body numb or decrease strength in parts of the body.
- Migraine-like headaches
- Characteristics: Resembles a migraine with pounding or throbbing pain in the forehead or temple, sometimes associated with nausea and light/noise sensitivity.
- Cause: Migraines involve blood vessel changes at the temple, triggered or worsened by factors like emotional stress or intense concentration.
- Tension type headache
- Characteristics: Dull pain across a larger head area, often felt on both sides like a tight band or cap.
- Cause: Chronic muscle tension can result from poor posture, muscle strain, or stress.
Strategies and treatment for concussion-related headaches
If you have one or more of these headaches, the best treatment and strategies will depend on:
- Description / history of the headaches
- Personal and family headache history
- Physical examination
Effective headache management:
- Consider lying down in a quiet, dark place early when a headache starts.
- Prioritize getting good night’s sleep to prevent or reduce headaches.
- Support your neck and reduce muscle tension while sleeping. Also ensure that you do not have your head under the covers, as recycled air has less oxygen in it.
- After an accident, your doctor may send you to a physiotherapist (physio). It is important to find a physio who is familiar with this problem. The first time a physio works on your neck, the pain may get much worse. Tell your physio that you hurt. It is expected that it may worsen before it gets better. Make sure to complete exercises/stretches that are prescribed to you.
- Sometimes headaches require medication. There are two medication approaches:
- controlling pain that already exists and
- preventing headaches from starting.
- It is also good to be aware of any side effects of pain medication. Make sure you do your research and speak with your doctor regarding any concerns you may have.
- Sometimes certain types of light can cause headaches. Wear dark sunglasses, in general the cheaper and darker the sunglasses, the better.
- If you find that noise triggers headaches, limit your exposure to noise by turning the volume down, or going to a quiet place. You may wear earplugs, but not all the time as it can promote noise sensitivity.
- Make sure you drink plenty of water, avoid or limit caffeine intake and eat healthy meals.
- Emotional distress increases muscle tension. Those with head or neck trauma already tend to have tension in their head, neck shoulders or upper back. Pain can also become a stressor which in turn increases emotional stress. Hence a cycle can occur between pain and emotional distress.
- It is important to manage stress and deal with it in healthy ways during recovery. See the stress management section for more information on this.