The Link Between PTSD and Headaches

Close-up of a businesswoman suffering from a headache in an office

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Few people talk about it, but there is a reason to believe that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and headaches frequently co-occur. Even though headaches have received much less attention among mental health professionals than other problems in PTSD, the connection between PTSD and headaches makes sense.

PTSD is a reaction to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event
  • Efforts to avoid things that trigger such memories
  • Distorted thoughts
  • Symptoms akin to depression (self-blame, detachment, inability to feel happiness, loss of interest in activities)

PTSD also puts you at risk of developing physical health problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and pain. For example, 20% to 30% of people with PTSD report problems with pain.

Patients with migraine or tension headaches report high rates of exposure to traumatic events. In addition, about 17% have symptoms consistent with a PTSD diagnosis.

Another study found that 32% of OEF/OIF veterans with PTSD say that they have problems with headaches.

The Connection Between PTSD and Headaches

Researchers aren't sure why those with PTSD are more likely to have headaches, but one likely culprit could be head and neck tension caused by high levels of stress. In addition, headache patients tend to have more stressful events in their daily lives than those without the issue. Another mechanism might be related to changes in your body's chemical and hormonal balance.

PTSD can significantly interfere with many aspects of a person’s life, including work and relationships. This fact likely causes more stress, increasing the likelihood of headaches.

The type of traumatic event a person with PTSD has experienced can increase the likelihood of headaches. For example, if you were in an accident or situation where you experienced a head injury, you might be more likely to experience problems with headaches. In fact, OEF/OIF veterans are exhibiting high rates of traumatic brain injuries, which could account for the number of headaches reported by OEF/OIF veterans with PTSD.

How to Manage Headaches

If you have PTSD and are experiencing significant problems with headaches, discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider. You might also learn more about types, causes, diagnosis, and prognosis for PTSD-related headaches.

There are a few things you can do on your own, too. For example:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers formulated specifically for headache sufferers. Typically, these contain caffeine and a combination of other pain relievers.
  • Hydration (water, electrolyte drinks). Even mild dehydration can cause or aggravate headaches.
  • Dietary supplements that help with anxiety and sleep. Magnesium and melatonin fall into this category.

To address PTSD headaches at their roots, rather than just the symptoms, try coping strategies that focus on reducing stress. They also can help minimize other stress-related problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is cannabis an effective method of treatment for PTSD headaches?

    Some studies indicate that medicinal marijuana can help lessen the severity of headaches and other pain through chemical reactions in the body. Furthermore, the relaxation that cannabis can produce can reduce physical tension in the head and neck. However, marijuana studies until now have been limited by its legal status in many countries.

  • What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

    A headache actually can be a symptom of a migraine, a neurological disease. Other symptoms of a migraine include a pre-headache aura, blurry vision, pain on one side of your head, upset stomach, and sensitivity to light, touch, smell, or sound. Simple headaches are just that: Pain in the head from any number of common causes (inflamed sinuses, dehydration, fatigue, etc.).

  • How do I know if I have PTSD?

    See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis if you've experienced or witnessed a traumatic event and repeatedly have flashbacks, avoid triggers, suffer anxiety and related problems, and feel symptoms of depression.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.