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Post-Traumatic Headache After TBI: BrainLine Talks with Dr. Nathan Zasler

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Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

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Post-Traumatic Headache After TBI: BrainLine Talks with Dr. Nathan Zasler

BrainLine sat down with Dr. Nathan Zasler to talk about post-traumatic headache (PTHA), one of the most common complaints after traumatic head and brain injury (TBI). Dr. Zasler is an internationally respected neurorehabilitation physician who specializes in acquired brain injury and has a particular interest in post-traumatic pain disorders including headache.

BrainLine: What is post-traumatic headache, or PTHA?

Dr. Zasler: The term "post-traumatic headache" describes the most common complaint after brain injury: headaches. Unfortunately, PTHA is a "garbage-can" term — a catch-all phrase — because without a more specific diagnosis, PTHA simply states the obvious but doesn't tell you about the cause of the headache or how to treat it.

BrainLine: What types of headaches typically follow a TBI?

Dr. Zasler: There are several different types and causes of headache following a brain, head, or neck injury. The more you know about the various kinds of headache and their causes, the more informed you will be when talking with your doctor or specialist.

  • Tension Headaches — Tension-type headaches often feel as if your head is being squeezed by a vice at your temples — the sensitive spots at the side of the head between your ears and eyes. A decrease in tolerance for stress, decreased thinking efficiency and reserve, and depression are often associated with tension headaches.
  • Migraine or Neurovascular Headaches — Migraine headaches account for approximately 20 percent of PTHA (although many practitioners will debate this). Migraines are thought to be the result of changes in the blood flow inside the brain. The risk for migraines post-injury appears to be strongly genetically linked.
  • Cervical/Cervicogenic Headaches — This kind of PTHA is common after a brain injury and is usually related to neck injury involving ligament, muscle, and/or joint (facet) injury.
  • Musculoskeletal Headaches — Musculoskeletal headaches are often overlooked but are quite common after a TBI. Pain in the muscles or bones of the head, neck, shoulders, and/or jaw (see below) can be a source of head pain.
  • Temporomandibular Joint Disfunction — TMJD sometimes occurs after trauma and involves injury to the "chewing" muscles around the jaw, or to the jaw joints themselves leading to headaches typically experienced on the side of the head in the temple region(s).
  • Neuritic and Neuralgic Pain — Injury to the nerves in the scalp or larger nerves in the face (e.g. supra-orbital) and upper neck (e.g. greater occipital) from the trauma can result in head discomfort as well as headaches that may present with numbness, sensitivity, and/or shooting- or stabbing-type pains.

BrainLine: How common is PTHA after TBI? And when do these headaches start? Can there be a delay between the injury and the headaches?

Dr. Zasler: PTHA is one of the most common symptoms after a brain injury. In fact, approximately 70 percent of people who have had a mild TBI or concussion complain of PTHA. The catch is that PTHA is often not related to the brain injury itself, but rather to the other injuries sustained at the same time including trauma to the head, jaw, and/or neck. Most PTHA start within two weeks after the injury regardless of the cause of the headache pain; however, onset may be later with certain less common headache types.

BrainLine: How long does PTHA usually last after TBI?

Dr. Zasler: In medical circles, there is debate about this question. There is clearly evidence that PTHA can be chronic, especially if the headache types are tension or migraine headaches. However, it is very important to look at the cause of headache pain post-injury. Much of the literature on PTHA lump all the types of headaches together, which is a mistake since the more you know about the root cause of a headache post-trauma, the more effectively you can treat it.

BrainLine: What kind of information should you give your doctor to help him better understand your headaches?

Dr. Zasler: We all know that knowledge is power. And in this case, the more knowledge and information a doctor has about a person's injury and the nature of the PTHA, the more effective treatment he can offer. First of all, the doctor needs to understand the person's history. Make sure the doctor reviews your medical records including your imaging tests. Then he needs to take an adequate headache history, which should include among other inquiries questions expressed in the mnemonic COLDER:

Character — What the headache feels like
Onset — How the headache starts
Location — Where exactly the headache hurts
Duration — How long the headache lasts
Exacerbation — What makes the headache worse
Relief — What makes the headache less or better

The doctor will also want to ask when the PTHA started after the trauma; how severe and frequent the headaches are and whether the severity varies; what medicines have been effective, or not; and what the "functional consequences" of the headache are — meaning, can the person go to work or does he have to lie down and sleep in a dark room until the headache subsides?

BrainLine: What else should a doctor's evaluation entail?

Dr. Zasler: In addition to the medical and headache histories, the doctor will also want to perform appropriate neurological and musculoskeletal exams. This should include direct examinations of the face, head, neck, and upper spine and shoulder area. He may need to order further diagnostic tests. Finally, depending on the cause of the headache, the doctor may recommend any number of specialists, including a physiatrist (rehabilitation medicine physician), dentist or oromaxillofacial surgeon who specializes in TMJ problems, a neurologist, psychiatrist, physical therapist, and/or a pain management specialist.

You may also want to contact brain injury advocacy groups like the Brain Injury Association of America or one of its local state affiliates, which may have resources to help you find specialists in your area. Most importantly, when picking a specialist, make sure the specialist has experience with treating these types of headaches. Each person's headache disorder must be individually assessed and managed.


Nathan D. Zasler, MD Nathan D. Zasler, MD, Nathan Zasler, MD is CEO and medical director for Concussion Care Centre of Virginia, Ltd. as well as CEO and medical director for Tree of Life Services, Inc.  He is board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and fellowship trained in brain injury.

The contents of Brainline (the “Web Site”), such as text, graphics, images, information obtained from the Web Site’s licensors and/or consultants, and other material contained on the Web Site (collectively, the “Content”) are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for medical, legal, or other professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Specifically, with regards to medical issues, always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the Web Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. The Web Site does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on the Web Site. Reliance on any information provided by the Web Site or by employees, volunteers or contractors or others associated with the Web Site and/or other visitors to the Web Site is solely at your own risk.

Comments [32]

I fell off a high wall about 2 months ago , I hit the left side of my head very hard and had very bad bruising , after about 2 weeks I started to get severe headaches to the left side of my head the side that I hit. I've been getting them ever since but only to that one side of my head , what should I do ??

Oct 26th, 2015 7:32pm

I suffered a traumatic brain injury in December 2012 and for the last few years have had major problems with my eyes and ears not registering to my brain and severe headaches and dizziness and have had a few seizures to which just happen without any warning. Have seen a few different types of doctors but don't feel any better. Help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

Oct 21st, 2015 6:31pm


Sep 26th, 2015 8:11pm

I was in a bad wreck in 93 and lost 8oz of my brain. I have seizers. Every once and a while i have a sharp pain in the area of my head. It hurts so bad and the only thing that helps is a heating pad. Does anyone have any other ideas to ease the pain? Thank u

Aug 18th, 2015 12:08am

For several months, following my craniotomy, my head ached, incessantly; of course, the aches and pains, eventually, did subside and I was able to move on. Of course, the fact that my growth spurt caused me to outgrow my shunt led me to experience massively sharp pains; but, that occurred less than 6 months after craniotomy. After the shunt was replaced ,my headaches stopped and my cognitive and motor skills resurged. Since then, I've graduated high school, taken a BA in Creative Writing and, most recently, using voice recognition software, I took an M.Ed. in Writing, using my amplified crystal memory to allow me to tutor other students. My use of voice recognition software has literally re-strengthened my short-term-memory so profoundly that I am working successfully as a tutor of higher education writers and am able to do things, more normally, than I ever thought would be possible for me to do, following my 15th hemorrhage. Please contact me, at: mattramzzz@comcast.net or www.Facebook.com/mattramzzz1971

Aug 6th, 2015 10:45am

My son is 10 years old and had a concussion at age 8 then 7 weeks ago had a fall off a riding lawnmower and had his second concussion. From that time on he has had horrible migraines everyday. The pain he feels is not always the same. Sometimes he feels as if his legs are being chopped off, tingling in the arms and legs. Chest pain and abdomen pain. He is always dizzy and nauseous. 2 weeks ago he was in the hospital and got DHE treatment and the headaches went away for 3 days but on the fourth day they returned. He also has pain in the jaw, teeth, neck and shoulders. Maybe as you explained it was from the fall and where he hit. His current Dr said this are too many symptoms and are not real but I know my child and he is not making this up. His mood had changed a lot from being very irrtable and mad to depressed because he can't function with the daily things as going to school or playing soccer like he did before the accident. If he runs a little and plays like 10 year olds do the migraines come on and that's the end of his day. He has a hard time sleeping it has affected his whole life. Please give more information I need help because this is not a way to live.

May 21st, 2015 1:10am

I've read the aftermath symptoms but am not sure if I'm finding a pain I'm having. I was stabbed in the head 18 yrs. ago and get frequent awful headaches. I've been coping with these but also get a very tender, sore feeling in that same area sporadically. Is this from my injury or something new?

May 16th, 2015 11:12pm

I was hit in the front right temple by another head during cheerleading. Our heads collided while we were catching a flyer. This was 6 months ago, I was excused from my semester of classes because I missed too much class and I couldn't catch up. I am now back at school and I've been receiving extremely sever headaches with a pain in my nose. My family doctor setup another appointment for me because he thinks I need to go see a neurologist. I normally get a headache everyday. It could be the severe cold weather though too. But I've been getting headaches ever since my concussion. I live in Canada so it's pretty severe here. I don't think I'll be able to handle missing more school because due to my concussion already I have to work twice as hard just to graduate with the test of my class next year. I have to do online classes, summer classes, a dual credit (high school and college.) it's frustrating and stressful. I just want things to go back to normal. Can someone please just tell me what the pain in my nose is telling me?

Feb 24th, 2015 6:11pm

I am s/p crainiotomy June 2014 and crainioplasty November 2014. I have continual h/a's some are stabbing pain but radiate all over my head, I am not drug seeking, but I want it fixed its very depressing living like this daily

Feb 19th, 2015 3:24pm

I am a 20 year old college basketball player. I was hit many times in the head with a weeks time period. I was hit extremely hard twice. The fist was when I was guarding someone and her head hit my face and sent my flying backwards. I think I might have blacked out for a few seconds and I got up confused and dazed. But I went back in the game anyway. I know remember I experience a headache and memory loss after that hit. A week later in practice I was hit hard in the back of my head and fell to the ground. I got up and went back to playing. Then I got hit in the face right in the same spot I got hit a week before. Still I went back to playing, but in the drill we were doing, I started crying for no reason and I was confused. I was taken out and diagnosed with a concussion. The next few days after, I did not leave my dark room. The lights hurt my eyes so bad. People would try to talk to me but I did not speak, not even when my parents called. I was very emotional. The doctor sent me home to recover. He also thought that I probably received more than one concussion with all the hits I received. I came back to school after a few weeks of being at home. I went back to school and now it has been a little over two months after I got hit. I still have severe sensitivity to light and noise. I get extremely bad tension like headaches with sharp pain. Then I start crying for no reason. I am getting sick of my symptoms I want to be able to exercise again. It has been months since I got my concussions, I should not be experiencing symptoms like this still. It makes me wonder if something is wrong. I also think this is happening because I am back at college taking classes and studying and watching (very loud) basketball practice and games. The noise bothers me sooooo much. I where ear plugs all the time. Please help.

Feb 13th, 2015 8:16pm

I am 17 and have had a severe concussion. My understanding was that I am not healed until I am 100% symptom free. Kinda confusing as everyone is talking about headaches after being healed

Dec 8th, 2014 12:46am

3.5 cm minengioma removed 9.5 mnths ago and then 4 weeks ago, hit my head really hard. Im told, dont hit your head again until it goes away. Im still having point tenderness where I hit. Is this normal.?

Nov 2nd, 2014 2:19pm

Im a 49 or old woman and on September 21, 2014 I was in a motorcycle accident most of the impact was my upper body and right side of my head. When I came to, after the accident my brain was shaking back and forth inside my scalp. The catscan came back normal but now I suffer everyday with a headache, my Chiropractor says my neck is sprained. These headaches ate constant, I wake up with one everyday. Im not sure what to do.

Oct 13th, 2014 8:39pm

I know what it's like to live every day with headaches. I suffered a temporal bone fracture and jaw dislocation from a fall at work. I fell into some steel structure, hitting the right side of my head and fracturing my temporal bone. Neurosurgeon said that there was no trauma to the lobe that they could see and that the bone being pushed in and slightly rubbing on my temporal lobe would be of no consequence. I beg to differ. My fall was March 22 2013. Since then I have had jaw surgery to realign my right jaw. But I've noticed a constant headache and pressure behind my right eye, plus my vision has blurred a bit. Now it seems the only way they want to "fix" my headache problem is inject Botox in the affected area. Of course it doesn't take care of the blurry vision or the pressure behind my right eye. I've also noticed that my left eye has began to get red more often. No burning, no itching, no discharge other than watering at times. It's all strange to me. Also I can relate to the irritability, sleeplessness and loss of cognitive thinking.

Sep 24th, 2014 6:05am

My ex-boyfriend ,kept repeatedly hitting me in the same spot as well as others,but it's behind right ear that seems to have suffered more than I initially thought. my scalp is tender and is in constant pain ...it feels like a baby's "soft spot" if you will...in lots of pain ...can't ignore it!

Jul 13th, 2014 11:54am

I hit my head when I was about 10. I was sitting in a tyre leaning up against a wall, rocking back and forth, letting the tyre hit they wall. That last time I did it I hit my head, I was that dizzy I could not walk, my friends had to help me home as I could not see. I had to go hospital and they gave me an injection, I assume it was to stop me going dizzy. 

I hit my head again, the day I turned 18. Was stupidly drunk, ran down the stairs, blacked out and fell like a pencil 6-7ft straight to the corner of a table. I hit the left part of my head, where my hairline is. I lost hair there, I hear a clicking noise when I walk, still get pains to this day and it will be 5 years in 3 months. 

I was born with a squint, which I have had 6 operations, 3 on each. My eyes have gotten worse, vision in my right eye also. Have to wear glasses. I am seeing a neurologist soon, and also have been referred back to the eye doctor to get my squint checked out as they thinks its not my vision that is causing it, the lenses in my glasses are fine, so they think its from where I hit my head.

I also hit my head again the next year, june/july. I again was stupidly drunk, was ill for 4-5 days. I fell out of a bed and hit the door frame, and kept hitting my head. The same place I hit before. 

I still get pains to this day. I feel my blood pressure go up and I get a pain where I hit my head, it pulsates with my heart beat, and it makes me like put my head into my shoulders from where it hurts, I also get what I believe is de ja vu. Where I feel I have been there, but I get it where it makes me heave. When I am in or starting a de ja vu, I know the ways I am going to try to get out of it, which makes it worse, the feeling is horrible, it is much like being put to sleep for an op, if anyone knows that feeling. 

Like said above when I walk I hear a click in my neck or head. 

My focusing and concentration is worse. My speech is even gotten bad. I slur my words, get mixed up, feel like I am getting stupid. 

I will be talking about something, then all of a sudden forget what I am saying, and struggle to remember, sometimes I just give up because I cannot remember. Just sit there going...errm, errmm...swear I am going to become mentally retarted. I don't know if its anything, all connected or anything, just fed up now. 

went to spec savers again today as my new glasses I got last week are not doing what they should, seem worse. She asked about if I have hit my head, I told her about above. She wondered why I never mentioned this before. Also she shone a light into my eyes, I had to follow it. Every time I had to look up I would get a pain in my head. Kept having to squint cause it hurt. 

Hopefully once I have seen neurologist and eye doctor they can explain what this is. Believe my doctor recommended in my referral that I have a head scan. Hopefully that can show if its anything or nothing. 

Jul 12th, 2014 5:40pm

I  suffered a mild concussion on January 28,2014 and to date I still suffer from pain in the occipital lobe on my head although that is  not where was injured and my left ear and upper jaw still hurts constantly. I now have migraine which I never had before and reading this article has given some relief that it is possible I will not  have to live with this forever. Thanks.

Mar 25th, 2014 11:51pm

I was hit on my head 2 months ago by a heavy 10ft long aluminum beam that in cases a large security storage door. I've been dealing with many symptoms over the past couple months. I'm getting really aggravated by the slow healing process. Where I was struck I've been feeling a tingling burning pain on my scalp. My CT scan and Xray were normal and I'm waiting on results of my MRI. Could I possibly have nerve damage from the injury and would that show up on my MRI?

Mar 19th, 2014 4:22pm

I am a Chiari patient and had brain decompression suffer in 2004. Following surgery I developed severe occipital neuralgia and migraines triggered by the surgery. I underwent a trial of neuro stimulation which was amazing. In 2007 I hand a neuro simulator implanted along my left occipital nerves and have been almost pain free since.

Sep 26th, 2013 11:09am

"We all know that knowledge is power. And in this case, the more knowledge and information a doctor has about a person's injury and the nature of the PTHA, the more effective treatment he can offer. First of all, the doctor needs to understand the person's history. Make sure the doctor reviews your medical records including your imaging tests." I was told by a medical doctor that he did not have the time to review all the medical records of his patients and relies on families to tell him about the history. Some doctors do not practice what they preach!

May 8th, 2013 8:02pm

I am a survior of domestic violence. Around August 2012 i started getting headaches and they are just getting worse and worse everyday. I am aslo having weird side effects: signifagant weight loss (30 pounds) um forgetfullness about things happing now i can remember years ago but not a few hours ago if i eat or drink i voimit or dry heve for hours um i use foul language without any control i studder when i talk i can be awake for days without any sleep. my behavior is erriact. i am constentally being accused of doing drugs. sometimes i cant remember how to write or spell or even talk walk.

Feb 11th, 2013 3:10am

I hit my head twice on a cement floor and over the following week my brain swelled tearing a nerve from my ear to my brain, thereby leaking fluid through my ear and nose. Loss of brain fluid creates terrible headaches, I suffered for at least eight months with debilitating headaches. Not to mention stretching the ligamnets in my neck. All of this can be pretty hard to sort out so close to the injury.

Jan 27th, 2013 2:23pm

I just wanted to say thank you for such an informative evaluate on the different types of headaches and stating the things I should know before speaking to my doctor. This is well written and easy to understand, even for a person like myself who had suffered cognitive effects from my head injury.

Oct 13th, 2012 6:07pm

hello sir, m 21 yrs old boy and m suffering for migraine but now a days i am having pain at a particular point in my head apart form migraine headache....and in my childhood i had a injury at that point...so is there any serious issues about this pain or it is the part of my migraine headache..please suggest..!!

Jun 21st, 2012 5:42am

Prolotherpy/prolozone is addressing my headaches that started with a 2008 rear-end collision. The prolotherapy (injections) treats ligament damage (stretched/lax) in head/neck/shoulders/upper back, facet joint damage, etc. This treatment has been around since the 1930s in one fashion or another. I had to learn about it on my own by researching my symptoms+whiplash (acceleration/deceleration injury). Otherwise I wouldn't have known about it or Barre-Lieou Syndrome. Warning, you will be scoffed at. I did not want to live on OTC anti-inflammatories or narcotic remedies. Mary (finally recovering)

Jun 6th, 2012 3:04pm

As a chiropractor who suffered a TBI in 1985, I would like to point out that a significant number of headaches are related to the neurologic tension generated in the brain stem by these injuries. There are a group of Chiropractors specifically trained to manage these distressing consequences. This group IS NOT WELL-KNOWN by other Chiropractors or conventional medicine; they are Upper Cervical Chiropractors: www.upcspine.com/links1.htm

Apr 17th, 2012 10:43am

I\'m 3 yrs post TBI and having intractable migraine HA, along with vestibular disorder, neurogenic bladder, memory loss, depression, and some aphasia. I think this whole ordeal really sucks! Not a lot of hope for the future and nearly daily, unbearable, torturous pain with the migraines. Please encourage the neuro community to research better treatment options quickly because I see no value in continuing my life with this hell in my head. It is the invisable disorder because everyone questions why I am at home, in bed, with a home health nurse. If some of my neurologists could only walk 10 minutes with my migraine pain, I think they would be much more empathetic to relieve that pain! I understand, no one likes a migraine patient... we\'re very irritable and always asking for narcotics to relieve the pain, but we\'re still human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity, not like a drug-seeker. If I wanted to get high, it would be much easier to score drugs on a corner in the neighborhood than to sit for hours in an ER, only to listen to the doctor lecture me about narcotic use. Sorry, but I am irritable and angry about the ignorance of the medical community with regards to TBI. Thanks for letting me vent.

Jan 25th, 2012 12:58am

I suffered a TBI in 2002 to my frontal lobe. Since, I have had many changes to who I was and who I am today. One of the largest complaints aside from memory and what not are the headaches I recieve. I sometimes get very severe migraines that can last for days if I dont take medication immediately upon onset. More recently, I have started having "ice pick" headaches. They are short, almost thirty seconds or so, intense headaches that feel as though someone is carving at my brain. My eyes squint and tears flow. Before the motorcycle accident of 02', I have never experienced anything so excrutiating in my life. This article is very helpful and allows me to understand more why the headaches continue. And thank you to my mom for sending me the article.

Mar 12th, 2011 3:47pm

I suffered TBI in 2003. Only had one severe headache to where I ended up in the hospital. That was post concussion. Now I have started getting intense headaches the last week now twice. Had a catscan and it came back negative. I am afraid now on top of my dizzy issues I am going to have these headaches off and on now. Today the headache was brought on after I went into a store with bright lights. Have been sensitive to bright lights after the initial injury, but never like this. Now I hope with this info to help get some relief. Good luck to those who are suffering from the same thing.

Feb 22nd, 2011 10:17pm

this article has been very useful, I am 10 yrs post TBI and have been having these stabbing pain like headaches for the last 2+ years. Most doctor's don't really know what to do, but this article has opened up some other avenues that I plan on looking into. Thanks again. Karin (Washington DC)

Feb 17th, 2011 12:01pm

Interesting article. I have been diagnosed with migraines for several years and cervic-genic head for one year (10 years post TBI). They are chronic and get worse during the work day. This is valuable information that I will share with my pain doc. I have kept a variety of logs, but no one really bothered to look at them, maybe with this information, they will!

Feb 8th, 2011 3:48pm

Thank you so much for this article. I have been suffering from chronic daily headaches ever since my serous concussion 35 years ago. My doctor kept telling me "it's just who you are" every time I brought the subject up, but she hadn't even asked any questions about them or looked into where they were coming from. I have just changed doctors because of this (I finally got fed up!), and he is willing to look into the headaches. This article has confirmed my decision to change doctors, as I find it hard to believe my headaches are not connected to the concussion, as they started shortly after the accident. Thank you again! Arlene Vancouver, BC

May 30th, 2010 12:06pm

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